The caveats are caveats, but they do exist. Mike Moustakas is not a superstar, for reasons that are easy enough to identify. He has mostly been a decent defender at an important position, but his defense was unexpectedly and undeniably poor last year; he is a good hitter with real power, but not an especially patient or prolific one; I also once saw him wear a pair of patriotic knee-socks with flip-flops into a press conference during the 2015 World Series. Historically, teams tend to overpay players like Moustakas in free agency, although they’ve generally done so for reasons that make sense. The good lord just does not make that many superstars, which is why we use the word “superstars” instead of “dudes” to describe the few we have. A team that cannot develop or acquire a superstar at a bearable price will generally go ahead and pay for Mike Moustakas instead.
It is not the worst thing in the world to wind up with a player who is very good but not quite great at his job, and who costs nothing but money and a compensatory draft pick. Good teams have become better by doing this for as long as free agency has existed. Sometimes those teams get more than they paid for from the player they’ve decided to pay and sometimes they wind up donating a bunch of remaindered Carl Crawford or Jason Bay shirseys and wasting a few million dollars. The hothouse internal economy that Major League Baseball has created strongly favors owners, but does not entirely remove risk from the equation. The resulting market is stunted and weird, but it also mostly takes care of itself provided that owners continue trying to build winning teams and good players—not just superstars but Moustakas-grade Dudes—continue reaching free agency.
Last Thursday, Moustakas re-signed with the Kansas City Royals on a one-year contract that guarantees him $2 million less than he earned in 2017, when he made his second All-Star team and hit 38 home runs. Assume Moustakas hits all the escalating performance-based bonuses in his contract, and factor in the $1 million buyout, and he’ll still make less in 2018 than he did last year, a season in which he won the American League’s Comeback Player Of The Year Award and set a team record for home runs in a season. At the start of the free-agency period, Moustakas turned down the Royals’ qualifying offer, which would have guaranteed him a one-year deal at $17.4 million and made him an unrestricted free agent at season’s end. There is no scenario in which he’ll make even half that amount this year. Comeback Player of the Year is an award I keep forgetting even exists in baseball, and plenty of players set career bests in homers last year, but also this is a 29-year-old All-Star. On Friday, Scott Boras said that Moustakas did not receive a multi-year offer from any big-league team.
Something is definitely not cooking right here. There is an individuated case to be made for why teams ought not commit to expensive multi-year deals for the various good-to-very-good players still unsigned in free agency, or the ones that have recently taken one-year deals below their anticipated market value. For Moustakas, that amounted to his defense and his whipsawing approach at the plate. For Jonathan Lucroy, another two-time All-Star who signed a one-year deal with Oakland on Friday, it was the mysterious disappearance of his prior power and pitch-framing skills last year. For Logan Morrison, who got a one-year deal from the Twins after hitting 38 homers last season, it’s that he’s been Logan Morrison for a lot longer than he’s been someone who hits 38 homers in a year. For Carlos Gonzalez, a three-time All-Star and Gold Glove recipient who re-signed with the Rockies on a one-year deal that represents a $12 million pay cut over his 2017 salary, it’s a long history of injuries and some increasingly psychedelic home/road splits. Lance Lynn’s underlying numbers don’t suggest he should be as successful as he has consistently been, which still doesn’t quite explain why it took until Saturday for him to sign a one-year, $12 million deal with Minnesota. Jake Arrieta has slipped notably back towards the mean after his Cy Young season in 2015, but it took until Sunday night for him to sign with the Phillies; he’s the only one of the above to get a multi-year deal.
Comparatively speaking, those are the lucky players. Neil Walker is an above-average second baseman and an unrestricted free agent but nothing much more exciting than that, and he is still unemployed; Alex Cobb missed most of two recent seasons due to injury; Greg Holland had what looks like a terrible second half but really amounts to a pyrotechnically shitty August. As for the other flawed but useful players still unsigned, they strike out too much or they don’t hit for enough power. They don’t miss bats or they can’t hit their spots. Sure, yes, right you are, absolutely.
None of this is invalid, but none of it quite explains where the free agent market is at this moment. Individually, there are reasons why suitable markets might have failed to develop for these particular players. Collectively, though, there just is not. Even taking into account the broader shamelessness of our cultural moment, even taking into account the broader sense that long years of rich-guy grievance are now tipping inexorably towards a cross between a capital strike and overt looting spree, baseball’s inert offseason is both awfully easy and awfully hard to comprehend. A team overpaying for relievers or pulling some pre-owned veteran off the curb during spring training is not a revolutionary new development. Every team deciding, separately or together, that they would just rather not pay for a pitcher that would improve their team’s pitching staff, on the other hand, very much is.
For all the individual reasons not to overpay or overcommit to a given player, the sum is now much easier to see than to ignore. Every pitching rotation in Major League Baseball would improve by slotting Cobb in somewhere; any team would be better for having Greg Holland pitching one of the last three innings of its games. Because of the way that this offseason has gone, a team on the verge—the Milwaukee Brewers, say—could tip itself into overt contention by agreeing to pay one of the available above-average pitchers a little less than he’s probably worth. The Philadelphia Phillies, now in the later stages of a tanking-driven rebuild, advanced their progress by a full calendar year simply by doing just that. The Mets could... you know what, never mind.
And while big-spending contenders have chosen, separately or together, to treat the collective bargaining agreement’s luxury tax threshold as an unofficial salary cap, any of them could simply have chosen not to do that and pay the financial penalty for replacing their current fifth starter with Jake Fucking Arrieta. And yet none of those teams did. While the wan recent boomlet in below-market one-year deals suggests that the dam may be breaking, Arrieta and Lynn are unlikely to get enough spring training reps to head north with their new teams on opening day; Holland and Cobb, even if they signed tomorrow, would be in the same boat. There just isn’t much offseason left, which means the strange suspension of the last few months will be felt once actual meaningful games start. The inert and entropic unreality of the last few months is not just real, but will have a real impact on the season to come.
Baseball offseasons amount to teams showing how much they believe in their specific futures, and how much they are willing to bet on that belief. This one, though, has instead been about teams signaling, in variously obvious ways, not how little they believe but how little they care. Not just about next season, but about the broader enterprise itself—not just the work of trying to make a team better, but the very idea of it. In a sour and sad way, Mike Moustakas turning down the qualifying offer and then signing months later for a deal that guarantees him more than $10 million less is a victory for the Royals—they got their guy back at a song, they don’t have to say “Cheslor Cuthbert” as often, and they can flip Moustakas later in the season for a prospect or two if it comes to that. The signing may, in the same bleak way, also qualify as a win for Moustakas, who won’t have to find a new apartment or favorite brisket spot and whose next team won’t have to forfeit a pick to sign him when he hits free agency again next year. At the very least, he’s better off than all the other legitimate Major League talents still without jobs.
And yet because it is all so willful and gratuitous, none of this feels good. Major League Baseball has generally struck a triumphal tone over its decades of labor peace; those words are on Bud Selig’s Hall of Fame plaque. All those triumphant collective bargaining agreements obscured a great deal of familiar rot, but this offseason represents the only way that peace could end. That is through one side choosing to end it, choosing to refuse good faith and choose something more convenient instead, and choosing to opt out on consensus out of avarice or plain peevishness or as a matter of rancid principle.
When players and owners sit down to hash out the next collective bargaining agreement, they will talk about how best to divide record revenues between the players who are the league’s labor and product and the rich men who get paid off all that. That will be challenging enough as a practical task. It will be much more difficult because of the ways in which this offseason dragged so much ugly subtext into the light. For all the questions that will need to be answered, the most vexing are the ones that this offseason has forced to the fore—why did the most powerful people in baseball choose this when they could have had anything else, and what could they possibly have thought they would gain that would make up for what’s already been lost?