Justin Verlander is on to something

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On Monday, Houston Astros’ ace Justin Verlander took to Twitter to complain about the glacial free agent market. (On second thought, glaciers are receding faster than free agents are being signed, so maybe that analogy doesn’t work so well anymore.) I’ve got a nitpick about what he thinks the “great performance window” for non-Justin Verlander players is, but otherwise, he’s spot-on with his take:

100 or so free agents left unsigned.  System is broken. They blame “rebuilding” but that’s BS. You’re telling me you couldn’t sign Bryce [Harper] or Manny [Machado] for 10 years and go from there? Seems like a good place to start a rebuild to me.  26-36 is a great performance window too.

The system is broken from the players’ point of view, but it’s working just fine from where teams are sitting. The “rebuilding” excuse is at the center of all of this, and for some reason fans eat it up while too many media members do not question the real motives behind teams that use it. As Verlander wonders, if a team is rebuilding, then wouldn’t they want to get a young star when they’re available, so that they don’t have to hope there is one out there to acquire at the moment they’re ready to shift from rebuilding to competing?

Grant Brisbee wrote years ago about how every team is three seasons away from competing, a number he based on the 2003 Tigers and their turnaround. The 2003 Tigers were an embarrassment, and a few wins at the end of the season were all that kept them from the modern single-season loss record. In 2006, though, they were in the World Series, in large part due to signings they made while they were still rebuilding, like Iván Rodríguez in 2004 and Magglio Ordóñez in 2005. It can be done, but a team has to try to make it happen, and the “rebuilding” teams in 2019 are not trying. Unlike Rodríguez and Ordóñez, Harper and Machado are still in their mid-20s at the time they’re available: there’s a much better chance they’ll be key cogs on a competitive team than there ever was for the pair of Tigers.

Sure, clubs like the White Sox and Padres have made overtures to Harper and Machado, but details on those talks are scarce, and what is out there makes it seem like these organizations were hoping the two star free agents were desperate enough to play for a whole lot less than expected. That’s not trying to sign a player, so much as setting up a situation where you can let your fans know that you tried, even if you didn’t, not really.

Rebuilding teams aren’t signing Harper and Machado now because it’s more profitable than signing them. It’s not any more complicated than that. Whether fans show up to games or not, MLB’s teams are going to get massive revenue-sharing and television deal money, so they don’t need to spend while rebuilding when they can just put all of the focus on hypothetical future teams loaded with all the prospects they acquired while not trying in the majors. If you’re like the Astros, congrats on a successful rebuild that made you very rich before there was on-field success. If you’re not like the Astros and you lose, well, you can always tear it all down and start over, again.

This isn’t just some cynical guess, either, as Neil deMause recently described how expensive effort is for teams compared to not showing any. If there is no fear of a drop in profits because how interesting or good a team is has no (short-term) bearing on them, and you’re in the middle of a copycat stretch in baseball where so many teams have already punted on 2019, you’re going to end up with a whole lot of clubs feeling it’s too expensive to try when the alternative is to get even richer off of not trying.

It’s not just the teams at the bottom, either. If a club is projected for 85 wins or so, many will happily sit there and hope things break their way in-season so that they can sneak into a postseason spot. This is why Red Sox ace’ Chris Sale recently said, in his first round of spring training interviews, that “half the league is just showing up for checks, not trying to win.” Where’s the lie? You could make an entire competitive team out of the remaining free agents, and yet, these rebuilding and bubble clubs can’t seem to find a place for any single one of them.

David Samson, whose stewardship of the Marlins helped convince quite a few teams that you too could get filthy rich without regularly fielding a competitive team, complained about Verlander’s tweet by saying players and agents “had to adjust to a new reality.” He’s not wrong about an adjustment, but he’s just very wrong about what that adjustment should be. Players don’t have to accept not being signed, and given the way Verlander and Sale and and Christian Yelich and Pat Neshek and others are all talking about the offseason and the collective bargaining agreement, it sounds like they’re thinking about a broken system that needs adjusting.

Getting the players together on that page now, while there’s time to formulate a cohesive plan for the 2021 collective bargaining negotiations, makes a ton of sense regardless of what a professional thief like David Samson might think about it.

  • MLB is partnering with a biometric security firm for entry into ballparks, which they say is for a more secure environment, but come on, you know it’s because there’s money to be made, as Craig Calcaterra details.

  • Seriously, give me one good reason there should be a focus on this kind of “improved security” for fans instead of, oh, I don’t know trying to make marginalized groups feel safer and more welcome at baseball stadiums? Maybe figure out how to keep Trevor Bauer from dogpiling on a fan on Twitter for days on end before you try to go all sci-fi on your ballpark security.

  • Emma Baccellieri wrote about the agonizingly slow 100 days of the offseason so far.

  • I missed this back when it first ran, but there’s a stigma around long-term contracts that shouldn’t exist.

  • The Cubs would like you to believe they aren’t affiliated with the fear-mongering racist Joe Ricketts, but as Ginny Searle points out, Joe Ricketts is very much part of Cubs’ ownership whether he’s showing up to board meetings or not.

  • These practices wouldn’t necessarily fit into an MLB plan for slowing tanking, but Sung Min Kim wrote about how the Korea Baseball Organization has disincentivized tanking.

  • Here’s Stephanie Springer wondering where cannabidiol (CBD) fits into the Minor League Baseball drug program.

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