Carlos Beltran never had to worry when he hit the free-agent market during his playing days. With one exception, Beltran always had a fat, new contract in place before the turn of the calendar year.
“Every time I went through the free-agency market, I felt like I was able to sign before Christmas,” said Beltran, whose seven-year, $ 119-million deal with the Mets was the only one he signed after Dec. 25. “It’s been a weird offseason for the players. I’ve never seen anything like this before. It seems like a lot of good players are without contracts.”
For a large portion of Beltran’s 20-year career, the Puerto Rican-born switch hitter was represented by powerful agent Scott Boras, known for landing his clients mammoth deals over the years. Alex Rodriguez’s 10-year, $ 252-million pact with the Rangers ring a bell?
But Boras finds himself in a decidedly different market and culture now, with many of his clients still unsigned a week before spring training breaks. Boras engaged in a war of words with Major League Baseball Tuesday, after baseball issued a statement on the stagnant free-agent market. Although Boras didn’t directly use the word “collusion” in his remarks to FanRag Sports, he alluded to the dark period in baseball during the 1980s, when owners worked together to avoid competitive bidding for players’ services. After the owners were found to have colluded, they had to pay a $ 280-million judgment to the players.
“It’s complicated. You don’t want to think about collusion because you never know,” said Beltran Tuesday, when he was honored at the annual Thurman Munson Award dinner. “I’m not saying it’s happening. It could be — maybe yes, maybe not.”
Beltran said that it was more likely the new wave of analytics in the sport is playing a role in why so many stars like pitcher Jake Arrieta are still without contracts.
“It could be analytics — (teams) thinking more like, ‘You know what, we’re not going to make a commitment to players for seven years like we used to do in the past. Now we want to commit for three or four, and give ourselves more chances of saving money for future free-agency players,'” said Beltran.
Of course, this year’s upcoming jewel free-agent class includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Matt Harvey among others. Harper and Harvey are represented by Boras.
According to a baseball lawyer, when the Players Association and MLB negotiated the latest Basic Agreement, the union and its executive director Tony Clark seemed more focused on quality of life issues rather than economic concerns. “They put themselves in a worse condition,” the lawyer said. Teams have even more of an incentive to keep under the $ 197 million payroll threshold with Harper and other elite players going on the market after this season. Teams are penalized when they exceed $ 197 million in payroll, as negotiated in the collective-bargaining agreement.
The baseball lawyer said that the sport has also become a “young man’s game,” and that it no longer makes sense to sign players to long-term deals.
Still, collusion stained America’s Pastime once, and former commissioner Fay Vincent warned that there is no reason to think such a scandal couldn’t happen again.
“I certainly think what happened in the 1980s is part of the reason why the union and players have every reason to be somewhat nervous. I would be astonished if it’s happening today. Who am I to make prediction? But it was pretty bloody then. The owners stole $ 280 million from the players,” said Vincent.
Whatever argument is being made, it is a muddied picture now, and one the retired Beltran can’t grasp.
“Before, a lot of teams make decisions based on emotions or, ‘I want to get this guy because I believe he’s going to be good for us.’ But now it’s not like that. Now, they make decisions based on facts -— what you have done and what they project as a player that you’re going to continue to do, based on stats and analytics,” said Beltran. “I do believe that analytics are a big part of the game of baseball. But analytics don’t measure the heart, don’t measure the desire of the player, don’t measure when the player is hot and should be playing against the righty, lefties. You cannot measure that.”