Brandon Moss did some good things for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2016. He hit 28 home runs in 413 at-bats, the 15th best ratio in the majors for players with at least 250 plate appearances. He slugged .484 and drove in 67 runs. He started at least 10 games at first base and both outfield corner positions, and the defensive metrics said he was OK at all three spots. That's a useful player ... and yet Moss can't find a job.
I have a theory on what's happening here. It's not just the glut of first basemen/DHs/corner outfielders available in free agency driving down the demand for guys like Moss, Mike Napoli, Chris Carter and Mark Reynolds -- although that's certainly a factor. As Ken Rosenthal pointed out, the Seattle Mariners couldn't even give away Seth Smith -- a competent platoon outfielder set to make $7 million in 2017. Instead, they had to take on more salary in the form of Yovani Gallardo from the Baltimore Orioles, before then acquiring Jarrod Dyson to replace Smith.
Even with his 28 home runs, Moss wasn't all that valuable in 2016. Primarily because of a subpar .300 OBP, he was worth just 0.8 WAR. He'll also be 34 years old in 2017. Teams have been paying roughly $7 to $8 million per win on the free-agency market the past couple of offseasons. So it would seem reasonable that Moss would be a safe investment on a one-year contract at $8 million or so, similar to the $8.25 million he made with the Cardinals.
While $8 million seems like spare change in today's game, it's still $8 million. Instead of signing Moss, teams would prefer to find ... well, the next Brandon Moss.
Consider his history. He came up with the Boston Red Sox and was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates during his rookie season in 2008. He got a chance at semi-regular play in 2009 but flunked the audition, hitting .236/.304/.364. He spent the next two seasons in the minors, the Oakland Athletics signed him as minor league free agent, called him up midway through 2012 and he slugged .596 in 84 games. He followed that up with 30 home runs in 2013 and an All-Star appearance in 2014.
In fact, that 2012 Oakland club that came out of nowhere to make the playoffs was built with several guys like Moss. Josh Reddick never got a real chance in Boston and came over for injury-prone reliever Andrew Bailey, compiling a 10.9 WAR as the A's made three straight trips to the playoffs. Josh Donaldson was struggling in the minors for the Chicago Cubs when he was acquired in 2008, finally breaking out late in 2012. Smith was on the 2012 and 2013 teams, acquired from the Colorado Rockies for Josh Outman. None of these guys made any money yet formed the core of the Oakland offense along with Yoenis Cespedes.
My understanding is that this is essentially the way coach Bill Belichick runs the New England Patriots. In the middle of this season, the Patriots traded Pro Bowl linebacker Jamie Collins. While there were later reports of Collins having disagreements with the coaching staff, his four-year rookie contract was set to expire at the end of the season and he was reportedly looking for "Von Miller money," which is a lot of money given the Denver Broncos star linebacker's salary.
Belichick's theory has always been: Unless you're Tom Brady, I can find somebody just as good, or nearly as good, who doesn't make as much money. Collins was traded to the Cleveland Browns for a third-round draft pick. The Patriots went 14-2 and allowed 65 fewer points than in 2015.
Think of baseball talent like a pyramid with Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw at the top. The base includes a bunch of players who are replacement-level or just above. Some of them are in the majors, some are in Triple-A, some are still prospects coming up through the minors. One key for teams, especially small-market teams, is you don't want to be paying the guys at the bottom of your pyramid $8 million a season; you need to free up cash to pay for better players.
What I think might start happening is that these $8 million contracts for veterans like Moss will start drying up, in particular because teams in the rebuilding part of their cycle will give a younger, cheaper player a chance. Maybe that player isn't quite Brandon Moss, but he might be 85 percent of Moss for one-tenth the price.
Like I said, this is just a theory. One way to check if we're seeing a decline in the number of mediocre veterans employed is to look at the Moss-type of player. I checked for all position players 32 years old and older who were worth 1.0 WAR or less over the past 10 seasons and received at least 100 plate appearances (to filter out the emergency call-ups and fill-ins). Are we seeing fewer of them? Well, in 2016 they received the most playing time since 2011.
On the other hand, the overall trend is less playing time for this type of player. From 2007 to 2011, these players averaged 21,973 plate appearances per season; from 2012 to 2016, they averaged 18,735. The study is also imperfect; maybe the best way to look at it would be to see how much playing time these guys get in the season after they were mediocre (or worse) and see how that has changed over time.
We also know that the aging curve is changing, with younger players producing more and older players declining more rapidly than in the steroid era. This is another reason teams are reluctant to sign guys in their 30s who aren't stars. But if you're Brandon Moss and you're scrambling for a job, the $8 million paydays and multi-year contracts may be coming to an end.