The glut of first basemen, designated hitters and corner outfielders on the free-agent market has reached a stalemate. More than a dozen players who were regular starters at those positions in 2016 remain free agents, along with another dozen or so part-time regulars or former starters.
As Buster Olney wrote Monday, “In my years of covering baseball, I've never seen a situation in which so many players are still looking for jobs this deep into the winter.”
The simple explanation is the players are asking for too much money and the clubs are offering too little. It's not that quite that simple, however, and I don’t think this is a one-year circumstance. There are reasons the major league home run leader and others remained unsigned. Here are a few theories as to what’s going on:
1. Maybe these guys just aren’t all that great.
Edwin Encarnacion is the one star hitter left, and he averaged 39 home runs and slugged .544 the past five seasons. Only Chris Davis has more home runs in that span, and only four others have a higher slugging percentage. He has hit nearly as well on the road as at home. Still, he’ll be 34 next year, and his 2016 season, relative to the league, wasn’t quite as dominant as his previous four.
The concerns about Encarnacion, however, pale next to the others. Mark Trumbo led the majors with 47 home runs. Fifteen years ago, or maybe even 10 years ago, he would have signed a fat deal by now and been heralded as some team’s new cleanup hitter. Front offices are smarter now. They focus less on home runs and power and more on OBP and defense. Trumbo had a .316 OBP. He should play first base but always finds himself on a team that wants to put him in right field. That’s not his fault, and it’s nice that he can play right field, but he doesn’t play it very well.
Here’s another way to put Trumbo's offense in context: The past three seasons, he has hit .253/.309/.477. The three-year major league average for first base is .258/.336/.444. He’s basically a league-average hitter at first base. Does that sound like a $75 million ballplayer? Do you want to bet that he can repeat his 2016 season for the next four years?
Mike Napoli is a big name, he ends up on a lot of winning teams, and maybe he deserves some extra credit for intangible leadership skills. Next to his name for 2016, you see 34 home runs and 101 RBIs -- that’s impressive. But he also hit .239/.335/.465. The major league average for a first baseman in 2016 was .259/.338/.453. Napoli is average, he just turned 35, and he was less than average in 2015. Do you want to bet a three-year contract that he can maintain that production?
Jose Bautista? Awesome from 2010 to 2015 and not as awesome last season. His range in right field has diminished. He’s 36. It’s all about projecting value. Here’s another way to put it. Byron Buxton has been viewed as a disappointment. He hit .224 and played just 92 games in 2016. He had a higher WAR than Trumbo, Napoli and Bautista. Defense matters. Baserunning matters.
2. The median salary is dropping.
This is important. While the average salary continues to rise, the median salary on Opening Day payrolls dropped from $1.65 million in 2015 to $1.5 million in 2016. That means teams are keeping younger, less expensive players over older, higher-paid veterans to fill rosters. This appears to be a direct result of what I’ll generously call “rebuilding” teams.
Take the San Diego Padres. Is Bautista a better player than Hunter Renfroe? Probably. But what’s the point? You can pay Renfroe the minimum and find out if he’s any good. Why pay Bautista so much more than Renfroe to win a couple extra games? The Chicago White Sox could use a DH. But the team isn’t aiming for the playoffs, so why sign Napoli to a two-year deal for $30 million or so to win maybe 73 games instead of 71?
The net effect is twofold: It puts more money in owners’ pockets (shocker!), but it also means the 30 best first basemen in baseball aren’t necessarily the 30 starting first basemen.
The fringe starters such as Brandon Moss, Chris Carter, Adam Lind and Pedro Alvarez are in even less demand. They’re barely replacement-level players, maybe 1 WAR players (though none of them was worth 1 WAR in 2016, according to Baseball-Reference.com). Same principle: Why pay $8 million for that? Even if those guys might be helpful bench players, they’re not looking to be bench players in mid-December. Come February, they might change their minds.
Think of baseball talent like a pyramid with Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw at the top. There are a whole bunch of players with similar talent at the bottom of the pyramid. Today’s front offices aren’t going to be easily seduced simply because you can pop a few homers.
3. The free-agent class of 2018.
This is a more minor issue, but teams want to keep as much money freed up as possible when the goldmine of free agents arrives after the 2018 season. That group will include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Brian Dozier, A.J. Pollock, Jean Segura, Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy, DJ LeMahieu, Dallas Keuchel, Matt Harvey, Zach Britton and possibly Kershaw and David Price (who both have opt-out clauses).
That’s one reason I think the bidding was quiet for Justin Turner. The Dodgers kind of reluctantly took him back. Not because they don’t need him in 2017 and 2018, but because it might block third base for a potential run at Machado or Donaldson. Other big-market teams that could have made a run -- the Cardinals, Red Sox (after trading Yoan Moncada), Giants and Yankees -- weren’t so desperate for a third baseman that they couldn’t wait for the Machado plunge.
Encarnacion might be worth $20 million in 2017 and 2018, but would you rather pay him $20 million in 2019, when he’ll be 36, or have that money free for a younger, better star? Today’s front offices try to balance the present without mortgaging the future.
It all adds up to teams' willingness to play the waiting game, betting that demands will drop, because most of the guys are pretty fungible players. Encarnacion will get his money, and somebody will end up signing Trumbo to a multiyear deal, but some veterans are going to have to sign for much less than they’re used to earning. I think, however, that they’ll still be able to afford rent.