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The reason MLB’s top free agents haven’t signed isn’t collusion, it’s delusion

These aren’t the superstars you’re looking for.

Who’s got two index fingers but no contracts? These guys!
John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS via Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have had as active of an offseason as any MLB team. They’ve made three major trades, which cost them multiple members of their 2017 squad and brought back a starting outfielder and two good relief pitchers. They also signed another excellent reliever as a free agent. It’s not the busiest winter they’ve ever had, but plenty has happened and they’ve addressed their most critical needs.

The rest of the league can’t say the same thing. There have been some significant trades, mostly involving the Marlins passing out their All-Stars like party favors. The Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes came and went. But otherwise things have been quieter than usual — case in point, today is Feb. 1 and eight of the 10 top free agents have not yet signed.

That free agent impasse has led to all sorts of theories. The word collusion has come up over and over, even though I don’t think many people actually believe that’s what’s happening. Many teams are concerned with luxury tax implications, as getting under the threshold for just one year helps reduce future penalties. There’s also the fact that most mega-contracts simply aren’t good investments, unless you’re signing a unanimous superstar in his mid-20s (A-Rod to the Rangers in 2001 might be the only recent example of this perfect situation). Brandon Moss blames the MLBPA for negotiating themselves into a raw deal.

Forget all that, though. We’re overthinking this. The reason this winter’s top free agents aren’t getting contracts is because they simply aren’t as good as they think they are.

Here’s a rundown of the top remaining free agents, as ranked by MLB Trade Rumors. I’ve also included MLBTR’s salary estimates for each player, which are usually as good of guesses as you’ll find.

1. Yu Darvish

MLBTR estimate: 6/$160M

When people think of Yu Darvish, they picture an ace. I genuinely do not understand why. He’s got great stuff! But you know what he doesn’t actually do that much of? Pitch. He doesn’t pitch very much for an ace pitcher.

Darvish has been in MLB for six seasons. He lost one of those years entirely due to Tommy John surgery. All told, he has only reached 200 innings in the regular season once, back in 2013. He’s only thrown 180 innings thrice. And now he’s 31 years old, so no one should be expecting increased durability out of him. Back in Japan he averaged 205 innings from ages 20-24, so perhaps he simply spent too many of his bullets early in his career.

On top of that, everyone’s most recent memory of him is his atrocious World Series performance. He made two starts for the Dodgers, and he didn’t make it out of the 2nd inning in either. It’s a pointlessly small sample, sure, and the players generally agreed that the baseballs were slick and weird. He may also have been tipping his pitches. Or, maybe he was simply gassed after throwing 197 frames between the regular season, NLDS, and NLCS, just one year after barely reaching 100 in his post-TJS campaign. Maybe he can’t handle a seven-month workload anymore.

Baseball-Reference says Darvish has reached 5 bWAR once, in 2013. FanGraphs says he peaked at 4.6 in his rookie year. He has ace stuff, but he’s not an ace by any reasonable definition. That’s why he hasn’t gotten an ace contract, like the 7/$175M he reportedly wants according to Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports.

Also, he’s waiting around for the Dodgers to clear payroll space to bring him back, according to Andy McCullough of the LA Times. His current unemployment appears to be completely by choice.

2. J.D. Martinez

MLBTR estimate: 6/$150M

Let’s play the mystery comp game!

Player A: 145 games, .272/.367/.544, 146 wRC+, 39 HR, 12.5% BB, 15.1% Ks
Player B: 130 games, .300/.362/.574, 148 wRC+, 32 HR, 8.6% BB, 26.1% Ks

Which of those players would you prefer? Each of those lines carries advantages over the other, but both are great and the bottom line is that they’re fairly similar.

Player B is the annual average of J.D. Martinez from 2014-17, beginning with his first breakout with the Tigers. He’s averaged 3.8 bWAR per year over that span, and slightly less by fWAR. That 130-game average is deceiving too, as he’s only actually reached that mark once in his entire MLB career; his second-highest total is 123 games, and it didn’t come last year (119).

Player A is the annual average of Edwin Encarnacion from 2012-2016, which encompasses his monster run with the Blue Jays. It was an incredible stretch, worth 4.2 bWAR per year, and only once did he fail to play 140 games — one time he only managed 128, which would still be the second-most of Martinez’s career.

So what’s the problem? Encarnacion is a superstar hitter, and Martinez has him matched. The thing is, Encarnacion was a free agent himself last winter, immediately after putting up that five-year stretch, and he only got 3/$60M to play for the Indians. It turns out that the sport is flooded with power hitters who don’t provide defensive value, and so the demand for that service (and thus its price) is lower than it used to be — MLBTR had estimated 4/$92M for Edwin.

Martinez has received an offer of 5/$125M from the Red Sox, according to Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald. He turned it down. That is fully twice what Encarnacion got just last winter, and dingers have only gotten less valuable since then. Granted, Encarnacion was several years older when he hit the open market, but does that matter? He’s still been more durable in his 30s than Martinez was in his 20s, and EE was coming off a year of 160 games and 42 dingers last winter. Martinez isn’t yet a full-time DH but he should be in 2018 and beyond, because his defensive metrics are atrocious.

Martinez is an injury-prone DH who wants to be paid like a full-time outfield superstar. He’s looking for the $200 million range, according to Jon Heyman. The problem isn’t the owners or the market. He simply isn’t as valuable as he thinks he is, and he’s already turned down a chance for a massive overpay.

3. Eric Hosmer

MLBTR estimate: 6/$132M

This is easily the dumbest of all the cases this winter. Hosmer is young for a free agent, at age 28. He’s got a ring on his resume. But he’s a first baseman who doesn’t hit for power and doesn’t consistently get on base, and his defense is wildly overrated. He’s got four Gold Gloves but has never led the AL in Fielding Bible voting, not even once.

He wants eight years. Seriously. He’s already got a seven-year offer from the Padres, according to Dennis Lin of the San Diego Union-Tribune. But he wants eight, says Jon Morosi of MLB Network.

Maybe he’ll find what he’s looking for! And who knows, maybe the team who gives him that mega-contract somehow won’t immensely regret it by the end. But the problem here isn’t collusion. It’s that the one-time All-Star with an offer of 7/$130ish wants slightly more and will sit around and pout until he gets it.

4. Jake Arrieta

MLBTR estimate: 4/$100M

Arrieta didn’t put it all together until age 28. At age 29 he peaked and won a Cy Young, followed by a ring the next year. Great start to a resume.

Last season he was 31. He only threw 168⅓ innings, but not because he missed time. He still made 30 starts, but didn’t come close to averaging even six frames per outing. He also lost 2 mph off his average fastball, according to Brooks Baseball. His FIP was 4.16, nearly two runs higher than his 2014-15 peak.

That off-year may have been a blip. Or it may have been a late-bloomer disappearing as suddenly as he’d previously appeared. Who knows! I’d be perfectly happy to find out, but I’d do it on a one-year show-me deal. Tack a player option on there in good faith. But to commit four years of ace money to a guy who might be running out of gas? That wouldn’t be a wise idea in any offseason.

Next on the list is Masahiro Tanaka, but he didn’t use his opt-out clause so he never became an FA. Good choice.

5. Mike Moustakas

MLBTR estimate: 5/$85M

Moose hit 38 homers last year as part of the dinger revolution. But he doesn’t get on base and never has (.314 OBP last year, .305 career), and his once-strong defense at 3B has begun to slip.

On the bright side, he’s still relatively young. A five-year deal would take him through ages 29-33, which isn’t bad at all. But how much do you really need to pay for a one-dimensional slugger at a corner position? When Yonder Alonso, Logan Morrison, and Justin Smoak are all retooling their swings and enjoying similar power breakouts, do you really need to pay this much for homers?

Moose has averaged 1.9 bWAR the last four seasons, and most of that came in 2015 — his 4.4 mark that year was buoyed by an OBP increase and strong defense, neither of which continued henceforth. I don’t see why he should get any more than his outfield doppleganger Jay Bruce, who netted a completely reasonable 3/$39M this winter.

To be fair, I’m not sure what Moose has been asking for, so he hasn’t necessarily turned down an overpay like J.D. and Hosmer have. But I’ll bet he was hoping for more than Bruce got, and the reason he hasn’t been getting big offers is that no one needs him very much. I don’t even think he’s the best slugging 3B on the market, with Todd Frazier still out there (MLBTR estimated 3/$33M for Frazier).

Next up are Lorenzo Cain and Wade Davis, who have both signed. We’ll get to them in a moment.

6-8. Lance Lynn, Greg Holland, Alex Cobb

MLBTR estimates: 4 years, between $48-56M

Three pitchers, two of them starters and one a closer. Lynn and Holland both missed 2016 due to Tommy John, and Cobb missed 2015 and almost all of 2016 to the same surgery. They were all good in 2017. Only Holland can make a case that he was great, but he also utterly fell apart in the second half.

The annual dollars in MLBTR’s estimates seem reasonable for these guys, but I wouldn’t give any of them four years. I wouldn’t give most pitchers four years, but especially not a bunch of age-30+ guys with recent TJS histories. One or all of them may end up getting it, but I can’t fault any team for being hesitant. Also, this tier of pitcher might be waiting for Darvish and Arrieta to come off the board before getting real offers.

Naturally, Cobb and Lynn both want 4+ years at $15M per, according to Jon Heyman. Good luck with that, fellas.

Off the board

Those are the top eight free agents who haven’t signed. Most of them are still out there because they are asking for ludicrous contracts that would have been ludicrous in any offseason. Given what we know about offers that have been turned down, likely none of them are as far away from their MLBTR estimates as Encarnacion ended up last year.

But what about the ones who did sign?

Lorenzo Cain

MLBTR estimate: 4/$70M
Actual contract: 5/$80M

He had to wait a while, but Cain got what he should have been looking for all along. The annual dollars are slightly less than the estimate, but the total is bigger because he got a fifth year. He’ll play at ages 32-36. It’s a reasonable contract today, regardless of how it turns out in the end. Note: His bWAR was one win higher than J.D. Martinez’s last year, and just Cain’s last three seasons have been worth more bWAR than J.D.’s entire career.

Wade Davis

MLBTR estimate: 4/$60M
Actual contract: 3/$52M or 4/$66M (includes mutual option)

He actually got more than his estimate, especially if his option is picked up. No problem here.

Carlos Santana

MLBTR estimate: 3/$45M
Actual contract: 3/$60M or 4/$77M (includes team option)

He got significantly more than his estimate. Both he and Wade Davis will play at ages 32-35 on these contracts. By either WAR scale, basically every year of Santana’s career has been as valuable as just the best years of Hosmer’s career.

Zack Cozart

MLBTR estimate: 3/$42M
Actual contract: 3/$38M

Looks about right. Note that, since 2012, Cozart has averaged higher WAR per year than Hosmer. Both versions of WAR. The same thing is true since 2014, and since 2016, and in just 2017 alone.

Jay Bruce

MLBTR estimate: 3/$39M
Actual contract: 3/$39M

Nailed it. He hit 36 dingers last year to Moose’s 38.

There is no problem here

There is no collusion going on. There is no problem with the market. It’s not QO draft pick compensation, or int’l bonus money, or saving up for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado next winter. The issue here is that the guys at the top of the free agent class are good players who think they’re superstars. They are not superstars, and they should not be paid as such.

Hosmer should be looking for Santana money, maybe with that fourth year guaranteed due to age difference. J.D. should be looking for Encarnacion money. What makes this so dumb is that they’ve both already been offered way more than they’re worth and have still turned it down.

Moose should be looking for Bruce money. Darvish isn’t good enough to wait around until February for his old team to make room for him and should take what he can get now, and Arrieta should be looking for a pillow contract to reestablish value. The TJS survivors need to get realistic about their shaky health records. Meanwhile, and I can’t stress this enough, the top names who sought appropriate contracts got exactly what they were worth.

This is the dumbest offseason in years, and it’s all the players’ fault.