Thinking about that payroll flexibility.
Photo: Rob Carr (Getty Images)

The days are no longer getting shorter and darker, and began to bounce back in the right direction a few days before Christmas. There is still a lot of winter left, though, and given the way that the MLB offseason just kind of never got around to happening last year, it’s hard to know when things will actually get going. With all due respect to Patrick Corbin and Michael Brantley and I guess also J.A. Happ, who are now richer, and also to Paul Goldschmidt, who no longer has to live in Arizona, and to the ongoing Seattle Mariners buy-one-get-one factory liquidation event, we are clearly not quite there yet. The marketplace is active, but there is only intermittent actual activity. The Indians signed Carlos Carrasco to an extension a while back. The Blue Jays signed Matt Shoemaker and traded for Clayton Richard. Nelson Cruz is now a Twin.

This is still a specific and identifiable period in the offseason’s broader structurelessness—a waste of pre-speculation and projection and obfuscation for obfuscation’s sake, periodically interrupted by the Rays acquiring platoon dudes in three-team trades and the Mets GM repeatedly saying the words “payroll flexibility” to a wheezing and skeptical Mike Francesa. Even the best free agents are low on suitors and the rest have to scrap for two-year deals from owners who are increasingly rich and increasingly unwilling to spend money, and this dull liminal state has survived the MLB Winter Meetings and will last for as long as the league’s owners believe they can get away with extending it. We are not just an objectively long way from baseball games that mean anything, but also some to-be-determined distance even from meaningful baseball-related conversations. A period of immense abstraction is open before us, and it stinks.

But here is one thing to remember as we move forward both into this new year and this offseason’s flatlands of obfuscation and euphemism and cheesy compromise: every Major League team can afford to sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado to a contract of 10 years or more, and every Major League team would be made better by doing so. Right now, only a handful of teams are even admitting to being interested in Harper; there is a “mystery team” or two in the mix, although the relative mysteriousness of those teams is not terribly compelling given that somewhere between a third and a half of big league teams are either not trying to get better or strategically trying to get worse. Recent stories about the market for Harper have noted the usual—won’t turn 27 until the end of next season, six All-Star selections in seven seasons, National League MVP at 22, very much would like to be the highest-paid player in the sport’s history—but tended to be more about how interested Harper is in the process than about how interested teams are in him. “We’ve delivered literally well over two to three thousand pages of information to Bryce through this process,” Harper’s agent Scott Boras told media at the Winter Meetings, presumably because he had nothing much else to say. “[Teams] are shocked about his understanding of the business model, franchise value.” The only reported offer Harper has received is a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nationals, which he has declined.

No teams save the White Sox and Phillies and Yankees have spoken publicly about signing Machado in any serious way, although a much larger number of teams have stated that they have declined to consider signing a 26-year-old with four All-Star teams and two Gold Gloves at the game’s most important defensive position because they think he does not always run out grounders with the appropriate gusto. The Yankees are considered the front-runner for Machado, seemingly mostly because they are his first choice. The Yankees alsojust signed Troy Tulowitzki as a stopgap and Machado reportedly has no formal offers in hand. He might sign soon, but also he might not.

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Players that have accomplished as much as Harper and Machado do not typically hit free agency at such a young age, but also players like Harper and Machado are atypical by definition. At some point, some team will pay them both a lot of money, and it will likely be one of the four or five teams that ever sign star free agents. At that point, and possibly only at that point, the market will begin to develop in earnest for the players in the tier just below them. That could happen in a few weeks, or it could happen in late February. You already know this.

You probably also know this: since Alex Rodriguez signed his then-record 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers back in 2001, Major League Baseball’s revenues have more than doubled even when adjusted for inflation. Team payrolls, after a similar adjustment, have gone up by less than 40 percent; the richest contract in the game right now is the 14-year, $325 million deal Giancarlo Stanton signed in 2014. Teams, even big-spending teams like the Yankees, are spending significantly smaller percentages of their significantly larger revenues than they have in the past; at River Avenue Blues, Bobby Montano points out that the Yankees spent something like 30 percent of their revenue on player payroll, relative to the 85 percent that they spent back in 2004. That’s a lower percentage of revenue spent on payroll than the Rays. The teams that the MLBPA is suing for refusing to spend their revenue-sharing checks on improving their team are the most egregious offenders in the league’s ongoing soft capital strike—the Pittsburgh Pirates, who turn a robust annual profit, are among the most egregious of the egregious—but their cheesy selective austerity differs more from their peer teams in degree than in kind. The Chicago Cubs, who had an operating income of more than $102 million in 2017, are not reported to be interested in either Harper or Machado despite a hole to fill in their outfield and the fact that their shortstop is an abusive creep.

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The league is awash in both money and justifications for not spending it on players. Some of those justifications are just familiar front office pettifoggery, and as such so familiar that the idiocy goes down easy. Harper and/or Machado could foul the Cubs’ locker room chemistry or subvert organizational ideology in a way that Daniel Descalso presumably wouldn’t; in a statement that left him open to an infinitude of “oh because he’s actually good” punchlines, Mets COO Jeff Wilpon sniffed that Machado isn’t “our type of player.” Increasingly, though, teams barely even bother with euphemism, and just serve the austerity sophistry up straight: teams don’t believe in long-term contracts, or are trying to preserve flexibility by not signing elite players, or are just Being Realistic. Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto has pitched his teardown as a “re-imagining.”

Virtually every team opted to treat the league’s luxury tax threshold as a de facto salary cap in 2018, even though the penalties for exceeding it are minimal. The Red Sox, one of two teams to go over the cap, will pay a penalty of a little under $12 million and slide back slightly in the June Draft. As Matt Collins points out at Over The Monster, that’s $6 million less than they paid Pablo Sandoval not to play for them and roughly what they paid defective Cuban phenom Rusney Castillo to rust over and hit singles in Pawtucket. Boston also won the World Series, you will recall.

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Notionally, that is every team’s goal; even the teams that are righteously and realistically treading water or blasting tactical holes in their roster are ostensibly doing so in preparation for an eventual push towards that goal. No one has to believe the people in charge of those teams when they say this, but the game’s antique niceties and the trappings of good-faith labor relations still compel them to say it.

But it’s more instructive to watch what teams do, or don’t. There are players on the market, even beyond Harper and Machado, that would move virtually every team in the sport nearer to that professed goal—A.J. Pollock and Yasmani Grandal and a host of veteran closers, for starters. Those players are available to every team, right now, for nothing more than money. I know you know all this, too. It just seems worth bearing in mind at a moment when teams are insisting, against all that evidence, that it’s somehow more complicated than that.