Free Agent Contracts Fall Short of Predictions, Furthering Fears of Work Stoppage

This is the seventh consecutive offseason I have compared FanGraphs’ crowdsourced free-agent contract predictions to the actual deals that were signed. With 48 of the top 50 free agents signed (plus Masahiro Tanaka returning to Japan), the average contract was $3 million dollars below predicted value.

The 2021 crowdsourced predictions were the most accurate they have been since 2016, though part of that accuracy was due to factoring pandemic economics into the predictions. The failure of ownership to meet even these lowered expectations does not bode well for labor peace heading into the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement at the end of the season.

Happiness is often described as the gap between expectations and reality, and free agents have continuously failed to meet these expectations. The data is convincing me that baseball will have a work stoppage in 2022, though I’m not sure whether it will be the owners locking out the players or the players striking. I have no real insight into the likelihood of the former, but the latter is increasingly likely.

All of the economic data indicates the player base should be quite upset with ownership. Under the current CBA, which begin in 2017, MLB set revenue records in every non-pandemic season while the average MLB salary dropped 0.6% over this same period. Last year’s pre-pandemic offseason provided players some hope that perhaps this parsimony was at an end, but this offseason has dashed those hopes. What’s more, only 22 free-agents received multi-year contracts in 2021 compared to 26 and 29 in 2020 and 2019 respectively.

Players are also upset about the ongoing practice of service time manipulation. Readers of this site are likely familiar with Kris Bryant’s service time grievance from 2015, when the Cubs declined to break camp with him on the roster. Service-time manipulation is an open secret among baseball aficionados, but no one in a position of authority had been stupid enough to openly admit to anything. That is, until former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather explained the organization’s plan keep two top prospects out of the majors for a while regardless of their individual readiness.

Ordinary baseball fans often (oddly) side with owners during strikes, arguing that millionaire players are selfish for wanting more money. But the players union is beginning to realize they can win the PR battle by framing a strike around young prospects, some of whom are paid just $2000 a month and only during the season, being denied a shot at the majors. Press conferences featuring 20-year-old prospects saying they just want a chance to make the club should play a lot better than 35-year-olds arguing they deserve $2 million more in salary.

Striking also requires a willingness and financial ability on the part of the players to forego salaries. The large number of players who willingly sat out the 2020 season suggests union membership has both. If players were willing to lose a season’s salary to safeguard their health, they may be willing to lose just a little more to fight for a fair share of the financial pie.

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