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Free Agency

by Matt Smith

As with many ideals, freedom always sounds like a wonderful thing in an abstract way, but in its purest form it can actually seem less than perfect.  For people to enjoy freedom, they need to have boundaries within which they can exercise their rights.  Complete freedom tends to lead to anarchy and confusion.  And to Scott Boras claiming that Oliver Perez is one of the top five left-handed pitchers in the game.

Free agency can be a struggle for fans of sports teams to come to terms with.  We can stand against the clear injustice of teams being able to hold onto the rights (and the livelihoods) of individuals indefinitely, but at the same time we may bristle at the thought of players using their free agent status to grab as much money as they can, as though it is indecent or in some way immoral.  Throw in the thorny issue of ‘loyalty’ along with ‘filthy lucre’ and it makes for a muddling mix. 

This is particularly the case with football.  The transfer system means that fans are conditioned to seeing players being bought and sold and ‘free transfers’, or ‘Bosmans’ as they are more commonly known, of top internationals are rare.  The line between loyalty and selfishness normally shifts for arbitrary reasons; generally so that a player can be attacked by his previously adoring public either way.  When a player wants to move to another team mid-contract, to get better financial terms and a better chance of winning trophies, he is vilified for lacking loyalty and selfishly wanting more money.  When a player honours his contract in full and leaves for nothing at the end of it, he is vilified for lacking loyalty and selfishly wanting more money. 

At the heart of the unease in football is the fact that those few free agents often receive salaries that seem out of kilter with their contemporaries.  It’s the ‘Matsuzaka’ situation in reverse.  As the Red Sox had to pay a $51,111,111 fee to the Seibu Lions to earn the right to speak to the Japanese pitcher, their contract offer was lower than you would have normally expected for such a talent.  Despite his agent Scott Boras’s understandable attempts to deny it during the negotiations, the Red Sox had no choice but to take the posting fee into account when committing to the player’s contract. 

In the same way, teams can tempt a free agent into joining them by offering a contract based on the fact that there is no initial outlay of cash simply to gain the right to talk to them.  It’s one of the reasons why Matsuzaka got a six year/$52m contract (which admittedly could go up to $60m) and Carlos Silva bagged a four year/$48m contract a year later.  One of the other reasons is sheer madness on the part of the Mariners and that’s instructive in itself: the uncertain boundaries of free agency can make you do silly things.

We are yet to see how the global financial crisis will affect MLB and whether this concentrates the minds of GMs a bit more on not letting the purse strings fly open, as is being predicted in some quarters.  Crises tend to lead to more irrational behaviour rather than less, so the free agents probably won’t be too worried in that regard.  What may make them sit up and take notice are the recent actions of the MLB Commissioner.  Bud Selig told the thirty GMs that they should be aware of the financial climate when trying to improve their ballclubs this offseason.  On the face of it, that sounds like sensible and reasonable advice; however if you are a player who would have commanded a 4 year/$40m deal twelve months ago and are now being offered a 3 year deal worth $28m , you might not be so understanding.

The whole point of free agency is that the player’s value is determined by the market.  If all thirty potential suitors decide they are not going to spend so freely this offseason, there will be a deflationary effect on the market. 

Barry Bonds was left sitting on the sidelines this year (possibly permanently) and while the Players Union have filed a grievance about it, you could put forward a genuine argument that all thirty teams looked at the pros and cons and came to the same conclusion: making the deal would be more trouble than it’s worth.  The same could be said for the current financial situation, but I don’t remember Bud Selig publicly telling all thirty teams to exercise caution if they were thinking of signing Bonds.  Had he done so, the claim of collusion would have been difficult to deny.  Selig’s financial advice might have been sailing a bit close to the wind in this respect.  Players and agents are unlikely to be slow in pursuing legal action if they think there’s a case to answer, so that could provide an entertaining sub-plot to the negotiations this winter.

It would be foolish to think the financial climate will make paupers of pitchers and beggars of batters though.  When a player can opt out of a deal that would have earned him $24m for two years of work, as A.J. Burnett has just done, and most people think it is a sensible decision, you know we’re dealing with an extraordinary situation.  The finances in professional sports are difficult for many to comprehend (or, in some cases, accept) and nowhere is this more apparent than with free agents.

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Joe Cooter November 11, 2008 - 1:56 am

Free Agency can be both a blessing and a curse. Born out of the ashes of the reserve clause, where players were little more than chattel bound to the mercy of their clubs, free agency has revolutionized the game. I can remember when Free Agency first started the Yankees signed guys like Reggie Jackson, Don Gullet, Goose Gossage, Tommy John, Luis Tiant, and many others. REggie’s signing earned the team the labels “the best team money can buy” and the Bronx Zoo. Let me tell you, they really were a zoo. You had Reggie vs Billie, Reggie Vs George, Reggie Vs Munson, Munson vs Billie.George vs Billie, who eventually hired and fired billie five times. Catfish Hunter and Lou Pinella would trade barbs with one another. On the field they played like a team and didn’t let their personal squables affect how they played, too much. There was this one incident where Reggie continues to bunt after Billie told him no. This led to Billies first dismissal as Yankees Manager. Billie made a remark saying that George and Reggie were made for each other, because one was a liar and the other was convicted. To make a long story short, those teams were never dull.

Matt Smith November 11, 2008 - 10:23 pm

I was just reading an essay by Roger Angell about Reggie Jackson’s heroics in the 1977 World Series. As you say Joe, those Yankee teams certainly provided a lot of entertainment, on and off the field!


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