A Conversation About Free Agency: Would a More Limited Window Help?

Hi Sean,

We talked about free agency on your podcast a few months back and we both agreed something was broken. Nothing since then has changed my mind. With the season officially underway, Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel remain unsigned. Shockingly few teams submitted bids to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and numerous top free agents — Yasmani Grandal, Brian Dozier, Mike Moustakas, Gio Gonzalez — had to settle for one-year deals when their markets failed to develop. The situation is bad and players and agents are crying collusion.

One “solution” I see popping up from time to time is a free agency deadline. Teams would only be allowed to sign players during an abbreviated window. The idea is to prevent teams from waiting out the market, allowing both players and teams roster certainty.

What do you think, would a limited free agency period help or hurt? And why.

Hi Moshe,

I’ve been thinking a lot about this free agent freeze as well. Don’t forget the sudden rash of players signing long-term extensions to avoid testing the market at all. That is yet another sign of the truly backwards labor situation at the moment. As for the free agency deadline, it sounds good at first blush, although I have a few concerns about unintended consequences.

I like the basic idea of putting all the interested parties in a room and lighting a fire to make things happen. There is no better cure for a protracted negotiation than a deadline. The biggest concern I have is who will it help more, the players or the owners? Oftentimes, initial offers are low as management tries to get the best possible bargain on a desired player. Agents usually respond by asking for more and using the threat of other interested suitors as leverage.

This makes me slightly concerned that management could use shortened windows to limit the amount of time the agents would have to make the owners panic and give their clients a better deal. Does that make any sense to you?

Hi Sean,

I can certainly see players panicking. But in fairness, that is happening right now anyway.

To my eye, the biggest single benefit of an abbreviated signing period would be to prevent the trickle of contract information that gets leaked to the media. While I do not believe there is outright collusion, I do think that teams are getting sneak peaks on each other’s offers via the media. As a result, teams avoid substantially overbidding each other. Even if it’s not technically illegal, it isn’t what the CBA intended. Teams benefit more than players from leaked information since players know every offer in front of them. So limiting media leaks should benefit players in the long run.

If the system were changed to require formal written offers to be made to all free agents in tiered groups within narrow windows, it would force teams to put their valuation in writing at the onset. Players could then choose to have a 3-day window to negotiate, followed by a required decision. The next tier of free agents would then repeat the process.

That being said, my biggest concern is what happens to the players who do not get signed during a limited window. Are they now barred from being signed at all? If they are, there will be panic. If they are not, then what has changed?

Hi Moshe,

That is another concern I have as well. What if the player misses a deadline? I guess they could have an arbitrator finish the negotiations between the player and his selected team. Could a player get a negotiating window with a team and if it doesn’t happen, that team is out for good? That would add some pressure while not putting the onus directly on the players.

I will say, I agree with you when you say a long offseason can hurt players too. Even this winter, Martin Maldanado fired Scott Boras as his agent when he reportedly advised the catcher to turn down a two-year, $12 million deal. The market continued to collapse and he ended up signing for one year with the Royals. You can go back and forth so easily on these ideas. It’s hard for me to really stay committed to one side or the other.

Hi Sean,

The more I think about the concept of a limited free agency period, the more I think about the structural differences between MLB and the NBA that allow the idea to work for basketball in the first place. The NBA has a salary floor requirement in its CBA that requires teams to spend. The NBA also has clearly delineated salary limits for max level contracts and mid-level veterans. As a result, teams must spend and must spread that spending around. So players cannot really be panicked into bad deals. Baseball has none of these player protections. It seems to me that without these other elements, a limited free agency window is not a magic bullet that solves MLB’s problems.

Hi Moshe,

I think a salary floor is actually a very good idea for the MLB. The NBA and NHL mandate all teams spend a minimum amount of money on their players. It discourages the rampant tanking that is currently a big problem in baseball. Big-market clubs are being restricted by the luxury tax, so why should small-market teams that benefit from revenue sharing not have to at least attempt to compete?

I think it’s clear that changes to free agency are needed in baseball. As is often said, the devil is in the details. Unfortunately, it may take a work stoppage to implement those changes.

Hi Sean,

I also worry it will take a strike to solve free agency. This was an interesting discussion and I look forward to our next one. Have a happy opening weekend.

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