Every season, a series of MLB players test the free agent market in search of a long term contract. Agents that represent these players are obligated to get the player the best deal, both financially and for security purposes. Of course, I am referring mostly to players who are testing free agency for the first time. There are some exceptions, as there are always veteran players who are looking to get another contact, as their current deal has expired. But, I am mostly talking about the players who have played their first 6 seasons in the big leagues. Some players have a higher percentage of re-signing with their current clubs. But some players are in a situation where their value has increased to a point where it is much higher than their current team is willing and sometimes able to pay.
As time has gone by, it has been established what the “small market” teams are. Oakland and Tampa Bay (according to what they tell you) have the least ability to add significant payroll. Several teams have more to spend, but choose to hold back on what they could spend. Obviously, the other side of the argument proves that a handful of teams carelessly spend significant money on players that do not improve the quality of the team. Is there another end to this spectrum?
Could a case be made that there are some teams that agents prefer their clients to not go to? Here is an example. Lets say there is a top proven player who has earned free agency. He is set to get a big contract. He is hometown hero in Oakland and it is his dream to play for the Athletics. Obviously, I am painting a scenario, not pointing to a real player. The Athletics would have interest in the player, but only on their terms. The player’s agent has an obligation to get his client the best deal for the player. Logically, the only time a player’s preference to play in a place like this would matter would be is the Athletics offer was somewhere in the neighborhood of what other teams were offering. But what if it wasn’t? If the player wanted to play in his hometown of Oakland, he would have to take a serious hometown discount. In the end, the decision is up to the player. But would you blame any agent if they suggested the player went for the more lucrative deal elsewhere?
The same could be said for teams that get the reputation for being stingy. If a General Manager tries to “lowball” a player and his agent, odds are the agent will look for offers elsewhere. Regardless of how most fans feel, a market value has been set for what a lot of these free agents are worth. Maybe they are not worth “your money” but the continuous increase in MLB player salaries is proof the value of good baseball players is going up. All you have to point to is the exact money top free agents get every year. And every year, the contracts seem to get longer and for more money on an average annual value basis. Whether you like it or not, it is a fact.
I understand how General Managers have a responsibility to their organization to not overdo it in regards to bring in free agent players. It is obvious that some teams do not agree with that and are, in their own words, “doing what they have to do to win”. That leads to free agent players getting better deals by teams that are willing to spend more. But there is a fine line between recklessly paying to bring a player in and not making a reasonable offer. Can a General Manager get a reputation of being too stingy in contract negotiations? Absolutely. I wonder if that reputation can affect the ability to sign a player the next year and so on.
My example is Sandy Alderson and the New York Mets. Obviously, the team has had some financial hardships over the past couple seasons, which has been part of the reason the team’s payroll has dropped from the $140 million range to where it is not. The other reason is Alderson’s and/ or ownership’s decision to rid themselves of the responsibility of paying players for the next several seasons. Of course, contract that did not work out like Jason Bay and Johan Santana make the decision to get where they are now seem reasonable.
A fair question that has to be asked is whether Sandy Alderson is willing to pay market value for a player he wants. It is easy to get a player who is coming off a bad season to come to the team for a low money deal. The same can be said about a player coming off a serious injury. There is no way, however, to convince a player entering free agency for the first time to take a less than market deal to come to Flushing.
Outside of Robinson Cano and maybe Jacoby Ellsbury, there is no player on the free agent market that should command a more than $100 million contract. Yet, agents for players such as Shin Soo Choo. Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco have leaked to the media that their players are seeking such deals. Yes, I am sure these players would be excited to land such contracts, but it is just posturing by the agents. The agents want to eliminate pretenders from wasting their time. In their eyes, “If you aren’t looking to spend big bucks, we do not want to even talk to you”. Simply the agent doing the job they are getting paid to do: get their client the most lucrative deal possible.
Once the phase of posturing is done, free agent players and their agents will sit down with teams to discuss a possible new contract. Though the market value is generally less than what the agent aims for, some teams still think the market value is too high. The market value is usually somewhere between the what the agent is shooting for and what the team feels would be a bargain. A top free agent will not sign for a bargain deal unless they are coming off an injury or there is some extenuating circumstance. This is the time where the General Manager has to decide how much he wants this player.
The Mets are looking to upgrade their offense. In order to upgrade it to a point where the Mets can contend this season, they have to sign a free agent for market value. Maybe they make a trade and take on a contact, but odds are they will have to pay a free agent what they are worth. I think it is too early to say that Sandy Alderson has gotten a reputation for being stingy in regards to contact negotiations. The last three offseasons have left nothing to compare it to. The truth is, if the Mets want to sign a free agent like Curtis Granderson or Nelson Cruz, they will probably have to give them a 4 year contract, paying at least $14 million a season. (I used $14 million as a number to match that of a qualifying offer.) If the team has no intention of giving out a contract like that, they will likely not be able to add a player like that.
Probably the best way to see how this will pan out is to see how much the first big free agent gets. But the first major free agent usually signs for more than market value. That is why the deal is done so fast. Otherwise, why sign so soon if you think you can do better by waiting? The best way to sign a free agent is to prepare your offer and have the player and his agent prepare their best offer. Then the prospective signing team decides how much they are willing to increase their offer. Once that happens, it is easy to know if a deal will be reached or not. The goal is not to pay too much, but the offer has to be fair enough to convince the player to come to your town as opposed to go somewhere else. And the “wooing” of a player only holds water if the offer by the team is in the same ballpark as the other offers.
Sandy Alderson will likely determine his success on what player he targets this offseason. Yes, it will matter who he chooses to bring in to help an offense that need a middle of the order run producer. But also the type of player is interesting as well. If he chooses to bring in a middle of the road player, simply because he costs less, the team will not get the same production. And it certainly will not go well with the already frustrated fanbase. There is no explanation needed if the Mets offseason includes the signing of Corey Hart, Michael Morse and Rafael Furcal. Perhaps the signing of one of them may not be bad, but the three of them together reeks of shopping on the dollar rack. Marlon Byrd will likely get a two year deal for more than $7 million a season.
Some can say now is the right time to bring in that impact player. But, who is it? It will not be Cano and will probably not be Ellsbury. Could it be Choo? Maybe, but I think he will price himself out the Mets and other teams budget. Granderson, Cruz, Jhonny Peralta and if the Mets choose, Carlos Beltran could be possibilities. Even if they choose to explore a trade, the same thing will factor in. Are the Mets willing to pay market value or more for a player to address their needs? The answer to that question will be the same answer to whether the Mets will be competitive in 2014.