Up to players, agents to adjust to new MLB contract standards

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith weighs in on the war of words between the MLB and the Players Association on why so many big ticket free agents remain unsigned, less than a week before camps open.

Let’s drop the suggestion of collusion in Major League Baseball, of some sort of criminal conspiracy to tamp down players salaries. I’ve seen it. I’ve covered it, and while it’s largely the reason my support will always be on the side of players in any dispute with ownership in any league well, sorry, I just don’t see it or feel it this winter.

What hasn’t been mentioned enough in all the hand-wringing over free agents still on the market is that there is a difference between not being offered a contract and not being offered a contract you want or your agent anticipated you getting. Secondly, while it’s true that the average annual value of top-end contracts this winter have mostly been less than anticipated, you’ll have to square claims of collusion with why so many middle relievers are making so much money.

Two of the predictive outlets with a degree of success in forecasting free-agent deals are MLB Trade Rumors and FanGraphs, both of whom do a great deal of heavy lifting for the rest of us. The two most recent free-agent deals reported – Erik Hosmer’s eight-year, $144-million contract with the San Diego Padres and Eduardo Nunez’s one-year, $4-million guaranteed package with the Boston Red Sox were forecast to be six years, $132 million and two years, $14 million by MLBTR and six years, $126 million and two years, $20 million by FanGraphs, respectively. Keep in mind that Nunez’s deal also includes a $4-million option for 2019 or a $2-million buyout. So that’s $6 million guaranteed, less than half of what was predicted. That is substantial, as is the difference in Hosmer’s AAV. Some of the other signings have been within $1 million to $2 million less.

Carlos Santana’s three-year, $60-million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies was market warping for MLBTR (three years, $45 million predicted) and less so for FanGraphs (four years, $72 million.) Again, we’re talking AAV, while keeping in mind that for some players an extra year’s wiggle room or extra year’s security may have a value that transcends salary.

Everybody spit out the bit with Yu Darvish, who signed a six-year, $128-million contract with the Chicago Cubs after MLBTR predicted six years, $160 million and FanGraphs six years, $168 million.

Now, let’s look at some of the relievers’ deals. Wade Davis signed with the Colorado Rockies for three years and $52 million – dead on with FanGraphs’s expected AAV (although with a year less than forecast) and more than MLBTR’s call of four years, $60 million. Mike Minor’s three-year, $28-million deal with the Texas Rangers was worth much more than MLBTR’s call (four years, $28 million); Brandon Morrow’s two-year, $22-million contract with the Cubs was called by FanGraphs (two years, $21 million but way ahead of MLBTR’s three years, $24 million.) Anthony Swarzak’s two years, $14-million deal with the New York Mets crushed FanGraphs’s three-year, $15-million call.

The point of this is that for the second consecutive season, the market valued quality middle relievers with end of the bullpen depth potential – which makes sense, given the trends in pitching usage. The fact so many of these deals were done early suggests that teams were extremely aggressive, another sign of importance placed on the commodity. This doesn’t mean ownership shouldn’t spend more money on players or that fans don’t have a right to be upset. But, I don’t know: far from collusion, it seems to me that we’ve seen maybe the two truest free-market off-season in recent years, in terms of reflecting how the game is being played.

Nobody wants to pay players in their mid-30s for stuff they did in their 20s, not with testing for performance enhancing drugs. And why should they? Players are getting better at a younger age. It’s been recognized by ownership and by extension management, bolstered by reams and reams of statistics. The time is now for players and agents to recognize it and figure out how to gain redress in the next collective bargaining agreement, and forget whining about collusion. That’s an insult to players who actually lived through that sorry period of history.


A collection of 240-character thoughts about making an early call on a Beantown controversy, firing up the Flames, stupid curling tricks, and Blue Jays optimism from a non-Rogers employee!

• Might want to watch this talking point with the Red Sox this season: new manager Alex Cora says he’ll use his closer earlier than John Farrell did and maybe shift roles. That will cost Craig Kimbrel saves. #mediacreation

• MLB.com listed 10 top free agents in early November. Of that group, five have either jumped to or stayed with an NL team. Four remain unsigned. Only Shohei Ohtani – a two-way performer – has so far hooked up with an AL team. #seniorcircuit

• Bruins at home. Vegas and Arizona on the road Wednesday and Thursday. Avalanche at home. One point out of the playoffs … is there a team with more on the line than the Flames in the days leading up to the NHL’s trade deadline? #makeorbreak

• Coincidence that NBA commissioner Adam Silver mused about seeding eight teams from each conference one through 16 for the playoffs, to set up the best teams in the final regardless of conference, when LeBron’s thinking of moving west? #yeahright

• Olympic medal for savvy goes to Jason Owens of Yahoo, who asked biathletes what they thought of U.S. gun culture. As an old print guy, I weep at his genius. #chickensalad

• Until somebody swallows Jacoby Ellsbury’s contract, Yankees will have a traffic jam in centre, especially now that prospect Clint Frazier is working out at that spot after moving off it for now-injured Bradley Zimmer. #centrecut

• Patrick Marleau is the oldest Maple Leaf to score 20 goals in a season, counting his 20th Saturday at the age of 38 years, 155 days. Norm Ullman was three months younger when he hit the mark in 1973-74. #ageless

• Bad news for the “everybody is a Rogers shill” brigade: Craig Edwards of Fangraphs thinks the Blue Jays have had a sneaky good off-season. #donttellanyone

• If you’re wondering where the Habs’ .477 points percentage would rank all time, try their worst since 2000-01 (.427). They’ve failed to hit a .500 points percentage eight times since 1950; this would be the third time in 17 seasons. #historic

• You knew it would be a Russian athlete. But hands up if you had mixed curling as the first sport in Pyeongchang to report a failed drug test? Meldonium vodka shots, anyone? #hurryharder

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.


Hearing Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey hold forth on our country in this remarkable podcast with the redoubtable Adrian Wojnarowski reminded me how lucky we in Toronto are to have Casey, John Gibbons, Mike Babcock and Greg Vanney in charge of our major franchises. We’ve never had it this good when it comes to the “Toronto” brand: Casey and the Raptors players talking up their adopted home in terms of lifestyle and politics; Toronto FC players such as Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley seeming to have found shelter from the storm back home, as well.

My goodness: think back to when Casey was hired by the Raptors before the 2011-12 season. By the start of his second year in charge the Toronto Blue Jays had just been knifed in the back by dream job-seeking John Farrell, who bolted the city the second the Boston Red Sox batted their eyes in his direction. The Maple Leafs were continuing to torch whatever shreds of local respect they’d been left by Brian Burke and his fellow travellers on the Disorient Express; Burke was eventually fired as general manager in January 2013. I don’t know if Casey’s tenure here will result in a title. Most likely it won’t. But few coaches have made a bigger difference in the life of this city and the reputation of its teams; few coaches will leave as big a hole when they leave. We’re so, so very lucky to have Casey, an all-star in every way.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan

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