DIXON: Exploring solutions to MLB’s free agent crisis

Aug 11, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; A general view of the MLB logo with Colorado Rockies batting gear on it during the game against the Texas Rangers at Globe Life Park in Arlington. Colorado Rockies won 12-9. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Tim Heitman, USA Today Sports

As MLB teams are really getting into spring training, there’s an uneasy feeling that lingers. We have an undeniable disconnect between the players and the teams. This stems from what can only be called a free agent crisis.

The big picture: Prominent free agents like Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, Adam Jones, Evan Gattis, and Gio Gonzalez are still unsigned. But obviously, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are front-and-center. A pair of 26-year-old superstars being unsigned this deep into February seems impossible. But it’s the world we live in.

It’s also seriously endangering the relative labor peace that has existed since the 1994-95 strike.

It’s messy. In theory, we understand that a pair of perennial All-Stars should be signed. But what’s the solution to that problem? We really can’t create a world where a commissioner can walk up to a team and say that it must sign a superstar.

So, we can’t directly fix the problem. But two solutions do exist that would go a long way toward fixing it in an indirect way.

Option 1: Create a salary floor

For the most part, the impact of this would be on the tier-two (and below) and free agents. But the superstars could reap the rewards, as well.

Chances are, the big market, big budget teams would be well above this already. So, teams in the Harper/Machado sweepstakes like the Philadelphia Phillies, Washington Nationals, and San Francisco Giants (not to mention the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers, Boston Red Sox, etc.) would be relatively unmoved by this — at least at first.

The same can not be said for teams like the Oakland Athletics, Tampa Bay Rays, and Milwaukee Brewers. These are small market and traditionally, small budget teams. The small budget element changes a little if they have a minimum they have to get to.

  • These aren’t the only small budget teams. But as contenders, these teams might be a little more inclined to offer short-term salaries offering significantly more money per year.
  • Yes, this has been talked about with other teams and all indications are that both Harper and Machado want long-term deals. That’s all well and good. But what if one of these teams needs to meet a salary floor and wants to take advantage of a championship window? If these teams are below a mandatory number, an offer of two years for $50 million a year wouldn’t beĀ thatĀ outrageous.
  • Also, offers like that being on the table could encourage the big market teams to up their offers.

If there were more teams truly in the Harper and Machado sweepstakes, it’s hard to imagine that either man would still be unsigned. A salary floor would be a good way to increase the number of interested teams.

Option 2: Adopt/Adapt to the NBA’s system

For anyone unaware, the NBA has a structured salary system. That leads to “max” contracts. How a max contract is determined is based on a number of things.

  • Which team is offering a player a deal. A team trying to retain a player can offer more than a team trying to sign a player away.
  • How long the player has been in the league and on his team.
  • Whether the player received certain honors (ie: All-NBA team) at the end of the year.

When all of that is figured out, teams have a set amount of years and money that they can offer players. So, for the superstars (ie: LeBron James, Kevin Durant), there’s really no classic bidding war. It’s just a matter of the players looking at the teams offering the deals and deciding what the best situation is.

This really eliminates the guessing game for the teams. As such, it’s rare to have a superstar NBA going unsigned for more than about a week into the free agency period.

Granted, these solutions would be much different than anything MLB has done in the past. But let’s look at it from another angle.

This is the second consecutive year when we’ve seen this come up. A season ago, it seemed odd that guys like J.D. Martinez and Jake Arrieta were unsigned into spring training. A potential answer to that mystery was that maybe MLB teams were holding off on the 2017-18 free agent class because they wanted to save their money for 2018-19, a stacked free agent class headlined by Harper and Machado. A year later, we can say without any doubt that this is clearly not the case.

That tells us that there’s a real problem. As such, finding an outside-of-the-box idea may just be what we need to avoid a very ugly situation.