The Point After: MLB must do more to modernize free agency

Hall of Famer Jim “Catfish” Hunter had one of the most prolific careers of any pitcher in professional baseball history. A five-time World Series champion, eight-time All-Star, Cy Young Award winner and one of 23 pitchers with a perfect game, Hunter did it all with a level of skill and wit that has been reached by few, if not none, since. In addition to his magnificent play on the diamond and extremely decade-appropriate ’70s mustache, Catfish Hunter busted open a door of economic freedom never seen before in the world of professional sports. 

Based on the work of Curt Flood who, in 1969, first challenged the MLB’s reserve clause that treated players essentially as property, Hunter officially ushered in what is now known as modern free agency. Gone were the days of Flood’s so-called “well-paid slaves,” and here came a time of unprecedented growth in personal freedom and economic liberty for players. 

In many ways, the decades that would follow were excellent manifestations of sport within a capitalist society. As upsetting and ludicrous as it may seem for athletes to be paid millions to simply play a game, these players negotiated contracts in line with what was considered reasonable market value, and the balance of economic power began to swing in favor of the athlete as opposed to the owner.

This is not to say that the teams did not benefit from the open market of players — they often did. Aside from using free agency to build championship teams on money alone, teams could make investments in superstars such as Alex Rodriguez that could bring money as well as wins to a franchise.

As is the case in any capitalist society, new market conditions spurred change and innovation among the MLB clubs, and teams began looking not to spend the most money but rather to gain the most value from each dollar they spent. 

Small-market, low-budget teams such as the Oakland Athletics and Tampa Bay Rays began to not only stop playing the same games as the rich teams but managed to find success bucking the trend. Free agency quickly transitioned from an expensive public auction to an uncomfortable afterthought. The history of sports is one of change and adaptation and, as professional baseball stands today, free agency is beginning to be phased out of the equation.

This offseason saw arguably the two most valuable free agents in the history of professional sports hit the open market in Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Considering that such a reality would be almost impossible to fathom three to five years ago (players of this caliber would’ve been locked down on long-term deals far earlier), it would be expected that these players sign mega-contracts within the first few weeks of the offseason.

Now that the dust has settled, the economics may seem to be the same, but the process has been clearly altered. When Rodriguez signed a seemingly unconscionable 10-year, $252 million contract to play professional baseball with the Texas Rangers,  it made shockwaves across the industry. As relevant today as the gaudy price of the deal for one player in a nine-man lineup is the date when Rodriguez signed. After losing to the Yankees in the 2000 ALCS as a member of the Seattle Mariners, Rodriguez signed with Texas less than two months later in December 2000.

As it stands today, Machado and Harper have very few qualms. The pair signed $300 million and $330 million deals, respectively, which, along with Nolan Arenado’s $260 million contract extension, are three of the five largest total contracts in the history of professional American sports. The issue is that it took until after the start of spring training for these world-class players to officially ink their deals. While players of such value can certainly miss time in camp and remain extremely effective, it’s alarming to see these athletes sign only at the 11th hour.

Elsewhere, high-quality free agents such as World Series champion closer Craig Kimbrel and former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel remain on the open market. Keuchel may not be Catfish, but there is simply no excuse for one of the game’s proven starters to still be available, is there?

In sports, teams always harp on the concept of “getting younger” and injecting a squad with youth. This has manifested itself  in baseball, not because of the promise of the future or building a culture nearly as much as the broken system by which young players are paid. In the NBA, NFL and NHL, players who enter the league are compelled to play for their drafting team for only three or four years at most without having the ability to opt out of a deal. In football and basketball specifically, the price a player is paid increases dramatically in the third or fourth year of their initial contract, giving an athlete economic freedom, if nothing else. 

In the MLB, however, players need to accrue a full six years of service time at the top level of the game before they are granted free agency. The first three years are played under a “club controlled” contract before the player can opt for arbitration in the final three years. In either situation, players often are not afforded the opportunity to be paid market value and enter free agency until far later in their careers. 

Simply put, this system must end. Even with players entering the professional ranks out of high school or as teenagers from foreign soil, athletes spend too much time playing for their respective organization to be granted free agency so late into their careers. While leagues like the NBA have succeeded in an environment of personal and economic freedom for athletes, the MLB continues to slip further behind.

With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire following the 2021 MLB season, it seems likely that pro baseball will join the NFL in a lengthy lockout period as players seek to fix the free agency system among a plethora of different issues plaguing the sport.

The “well-paid slave” may exist no longer, but a whole new era of player freedom issues have taken its place.

Jimmy Goodman is a junior writing about current events in sports. His column, “The Point After,” runs every other Tuesday.