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Monday Morning Mop-Up Duty: baseball’s changing labor market and some possible FA targets


MT. LEBO – The Pirates cannot and will not built through free agency. So don’t get too excited for the beginning of free agency Tuesday.


The good news for the Pirates is this: free agency is more expensive and less productive than it’s ever been and that’s good news for small-market clubs.


As we explored Sunday in this piece, free agency is changing: the supply of talented free agents is declining.  The free agency market is pinching in on two sides.

*One trend is multi-year deals and extensions for young players have bought out many prime years of free agency. According to Trib research, there were 108 players on MLB rosters in 2013 that had signed deals that bought out at least one year of free agency, totaling up to 306 seasons of free agency.


*The other trend is older players’ careers are shortening and they are enjoying fewer post-prime elite seasons than a decade ago.  WAR production from players 30 and older declined 22 percent when comparing 1998-2003 versus the last six seasons, 2008-13.


Consider total WAR production — 3125.3  wins above replacement — and seasons played, 1934, by players 30 and older from 1998-2013


Now consider total WAR production — 2445 wins above replacement — and seasons played, 1672, by players 30 and older from 2008-2013.


More data:


FROM 1998-2003

Players 30 and OLDER accounted for 42.9 percent of WAR from

Players 29 and YOUNGER accounted for 57.1 percent of WAR from 1


FROM 2008-13 

Players 30 and OLDER accounted for 33.3 percent of WAR

Players 29 and YOUNGER accounted for 66.7 percent of WAR


The game’s production splits have returned to pre-PED era levels:


PLAYERS FROM 1970-1989

Players 30 and OVER produced 32.1 percent of WAR

Players 29 and UNDER produced 67.9 percent of WAR




The No. 32 also represents the millions owed to Josh Hamitlon in 2016 and 2017. $32.4 million. Angels have not received the memo about baseball’s changing free agent market. 


So, to summarize, you have 1/7th of MLB players trading away at least one season of prime free agency – think Andrew McCutchen – and you have the 30+ demographic seeing WAR production decline by 22 percent  …. and THEN add in record revenues. The costs for the remaining elite free agents is hyperinflating.


Beware of buying Robinson Cano’s future as good as his past has been.


I think this is actually mostly good news for small-market teams as it limits large-market clubs ability to buy wins. Still, every team, even the Cardinals, have to supplement a roster. The Pirates will have to dip into the market this offseason to sustain a winner. And every MLB team can afford to play to some degree in the free agent market given the $8 billion in revenue the game took in in 2013.


The following is a look at not the best free agents, but a realistic free agent fits for the Pirates.


STARTING NINE THOUGHTS ON WHO THE PIRATES COULD TARGET (from least realistic signing to most).


Needs: 1B, RF, SS, SP.


HardballTalk’s top 150 free agents



From NBC: Morse followed up a big spring with six homers in his first nine games for the Mariners. He then hit just seven more all year, with four coming after he hurt his wrist in May. Surgery to shave down a bone in his wrist followed in October. That there are only so many right-handed hitters with 25- or 30-homer power will work in Morse’s favor this winter. He’s not a big OBP guy and he’s a liability on defense, but he’ll have bidders.



I think there is a good chance Clint Barmes is back.  He’d be cheap and he can play above average defense. But if the Pirates are looking for a SS upgrade – in  a thin market – Peralta is an above-average offensive shortstop and his defense has improved. Yes, it’s unclear how much of his production spike was attributed to PEDs but that will lower his market value. It’s unlikely the Tigers make a qualifying offer.



Hart could be an excellent buy-low candidate and might offer positional versatility.

From NBC: Hart is just a year older than the new $90 million man, Pence, and he has a slightly better career OPS at .824 (a mark he’s beaten each of his last three healthy seasons). Unfortunately, he’s coming off surgery on both knees that cost him all of last season. He’s aiming to be ready for Opening Day, but it’s hardly a sure thing that he’ll be 100 percent. Whether he’ll be any sort of option in the outfield is unclear. Hart has said he’ll take less to stay with the Brewers, and they definitely have need of him at first base. However, if he chooses to explore his options, he could find suitors in Boston (if Napoli leaves) and Colorado.



He’s not an exciting option, but he hits for a decent average, doesn’t strike out and is an above average defender at first-base. He could be a platoon partner with Gaby Sanchez.



His status as a defender has improved and despite his postseason slump, he’s a very good offensive shortstop. He’d make an ideal platoon mate with Jordy Mercer. The problem is he’s going to have suitors (Cardinals?) and the Red Sox might make a qualifying offer, which means signing him would cost the Pirates their first-round pick.

Drew makes sense as a fit but he’s probably too costly in terms of dollars and draft-pick compensation.



Byrd is surrounded by enough questions over his 2012 performance and suspicion regarding PED use to lower his value. He’ll demand fewer dollars and years than, say, Carlos Beltran. He made an impact with the Priates in the lineup and is also a good defender. I wonder if a one-year $10 million deal with a club option might get Byrd to bite while the team gives Polanco another year to develop.


3. A VETERAN PITCHER COMING OFF A DOWN SEASON WHO MIGHT VIEW PNC PARK AS A ONE- oR TWO-YEAR REHAB CLINIC. (If the Pirates don’t sign Burnett they’ll look to add another veteran starter)


3a. DAN HAREN — Still very efficient, some bad luck inflated his 2013 numbesr


3b. JOSH JOHNSON — An injury risk, but his velocity was still there last season. Fastball averaged 92 mph. A move back to NL and to PNC Park would do wonders


3c. PHIL HUGHES — If this once-elite prospect could adopt a two-seamer like the entire Pirates staff, his production could spike away from New Yankee


3d. SCOTT KAZMIR —  He actually rebounded in Cleveland but there might be enough skepticism that he’s relatively affordable and a year in Pittsburgh could bolster his market value in 2015.



Can’t beat them? Ask them to join you.

Beltran signed a two-year deal in 2011 and he’ll probably looking for a similar deal, think two-years, $40 million, this offseason. The Cardinals have Oscar Taveras ready to make an impact and they’ll be looking for at bats for Matt Adams. It  means they can afford to let Beltran walk and might not make a qualifying offer. The Pirates need a right fielder in the short term and Beltran has shown no signs of letting down.



Who knows what he did when he learned he would not start Game 5. Doesn’t sound like it was handled well. But he was a four-win pitcher in 2012 and the Pirates would be well served by trying to retain him. He’s worth a qualifying offer in the event he signs elsewhere.







I’m not a fan of daylight savings time. Here’s a radical plan to redraw America’s time zones. Sign me up.

– TS



  1. NMR says:

    Great work by you and your staff, Travis. Also kudos to your editior for allowing WAR to be used in a feature article.
    The mega Alex Rodriguez / Prince Fielder / Albert Pujols type contracts will always be an anchor on team finances, but I believe teams will – or at least SHOULD – soon start to get better at free agent signings due to the simplest of things: structure. The worst part of the run-of-the-mill free agent contract paying a player into their mid to late 30’s isn’t necessarilly size or length, but WHEN the money is owed. Any GM that back-loads a contract such that the player will be paid MORE money as he ages, and presumably produces less is terribly selfish.
    There is absolutely zero logical reasoning with the good of the franchise in mind for Walt Jockety to structure Joey Votto’s contract such that he will make $12m next year and $25m each season from age 34-40. This is in essence willfully telling your boss, who will be stuck paying the contract, that you would rather have more money to play with right now than in five years when you might not even be employeed any longer. Selfish. And stupid.
    Big market teams unquestionably have the means to FRONT load contracts to the majority of free agents such that they still get value out of the early, productive years and still have an asset once the player begins to age. The Cubs, for instance, could’ve got a legit prospect for Alfonso Soriano last summer had they paid him $18m/yr at the beginning of his contract and not at then end when they had to pay New York just to take him.

  2. BostonsCommon says:

    Re: Hart… “Unfortunately, he’s coming off surgery on both knees that cost him all of last season”
    Yuck. Pass.

  3. BostonsCommon says:

    Other thoughts on the FA listed here:
    I’m actually kind of okay with the Mercer/Barmes platoon, as long as Jordy gets most starts, and all starts vs lefties. Peralta and Drew are not going to be enough of an upgrade to justify their cost.
    Loney isn’t a horrible option at 1B… Gaby only started 60 games in 2013, so someone has to play the other 100 or so next year… I might call the Royals and see what they would have to have for Billy Butler the rest of his very reasonable contract.
    If Byrd agrees to a $10M with a club option for 2015, he’s probably going to want a buyout too (think an additional $2.5M). That’s starting to get pretty expensive for a guy, who if all things go right, will only be needed until June when Polanco can come up… Maybe just let Tabata and Lambo fight it out for a couple months?
    I’d take any of those pitchers on a 2 year deal (or 1 with a club option if they could get it). Preference goes to Johnson and Kazmir. But I bet Kaz can get a multi-year deal guaranteed for more than $10M/ year. That’s about as high as the Pirates have been willing to offer for guys like Edwin Jackson.
    Beltran? Not…. Gonna…… Happen… And the Cards would be foolish not to tender him the qualifying offer… Either way, he won’t be in Pittsburgh.
    AJ…I don’t know why the Pirates haven’t extended the qualifying offer yet? I figured that would be step 1 in the whole process.

  4. BostonsCommon says:

    I agree. How anyone agrees to sign a player until he is FORTY is unbelievable!! There aren’t many guys I’d be comfortable signing multi year deals through age 35, let alone another 5 years. Puljos only started 99 games this year. Can you imagine what he’s going to be like in his age 39, 40, and 41 seasons when the the Angles owe him $87M?

  5. NMR says:

    The 2013 Pirates taught us a couple things, IMO:
    1. Can’t win without great starting pitching
    2. Can win without even average performances in RF and 1B
    3. Added talent to premium “up the middle” positions (C, P, SS, CF) has big impact (Martin, Liriano)
    With that in mind, I think priority HAS to be placed on starting pitching and shortstop.
    Bringing back AJ would be fine, but I think there are a number of guys who could be had on short, relatively cheap contracts that could be huge values. Dan Haren, first and foremost. A rotation of Cole, Liriano, Burnett, Morton, “Free Agent” allows Jeff Locke to be good depth and doesn’t count on Wandy Rodriguez becoming the first pitcher in Major League history to successfully continue his career with arthritis of the elbow.
    Shortstop could become a black hole for the Pirates VERY quickly. Jordy Mercer provides value if and only if he hits. A small amount of regression in his sophomore season (which is likely given his .330 BABIP last year as a rookie) makes him no better of an option than if Clint Barmes simply remained the starting SS. Even with age and PED suspension hanging over his head, Jhonny Peralta would immediately upgrade the position, and I don’t really think it is close. Jordy could then be used as the UT infielder, replacing Josh Harrison, which would strengthen another roster spot.

  6. NMR says:

    If I put on my big-market-GM-hat, I could possibly see signing a guy til 40 as a way of leveraging my finances over those of lesser organizations that couldn’t match. Knowingly taking on unproductive years in order to also get those in the players prime. “Stupid, not insane” to take a line from Huntington.
    But I couldn’t see doubling down on the stupidity by purposefully making those unproductive years also the most expensive. Just absolutely stupid.

  7. BostonsCommon says:

    There’s just no way I’m doing it. Would never sign a guy into his 40s.
    If I want to leverage my financial muscle, I’ll pay a guy $30-40M/ year for what’s left of his prime, and then let someone else pay for his decline.
    If I’m the Yankees for example, I can see signing Pedro to a 3 year $100M contract for his age 30, 31, and 32 seasons.

  8. BostonsCommon says:

    As suspected, Beltran receives his qualifying offer…

  9. BostonsCommon says:

    This from Josh Johnson’s Matt Sosnick, “If Toronto doesn’t make a qualifying offer, we’ll probably be looking for a good pitching atmosphere, a good defense behind him and a team with a good chance to win.”
    Johnson did not receive an offer from the Blue Jays.

  10. BostonsCommon says:

    That’s Johnson’s agent*

  11. NMR says:

    Does surprise me, actually, considering the chances of him taking seem to be high.

  12. Nate83 says:

    Good pitching atmospher (check), good defense (check), chance to win (check), place on the Pirates plane with a fresh new uniform (check). Large enough check to make him happy (maybe check).
    Johnson would be my first choice out of the 4 listed by Travis. He clearly has the greatest possible return on investment. He was being talked about as a Cy Young candidate going into 2011. He is still relatively young and sounds like he still has a fastball that has good life on it.

  13. Nate83 says:

    The 2008-2011 version of Peralty wasn’t all that good. Pre 2011 his numbers are nothing that gets me excited. I personally would rather put that money elsewhere and role the dice with Mercer.

  14. T.S. says:

    Jon Heyman just tweeted it looks like no qualifying offer for Burnett or Morneau. Good, now they can sign Byrd.

  15. Nate83 says:

    I think Beltran gets 3 years for 35 to 45 million. I don’t think he will take that offer. Look at the overpays players like Victorino, Bourn and Swisher got last year and I think that the free agent market will become even more overpaid this year.

  16. BostonsCommon says:

    2014 will be his age 30 season. Even dealing with injuries, he still averaged a very respectable 92.8 mph on his FB in 2013. He would however, be a guy that would have to be willing to adopt the 2 seamer. He’s never thrown it more than 14.5% of the time in his career.
    I want him regardless of if AJ resigns. This is a guy with something to prove. And those are the guys you want on your team.

  17. BostonsCommon says:

    I don’t think he’ll take it either. But they absolutely had to offer it. At least as a starting point and as a way to protect themselves. He could get three from an AL team, maybe. I think 2 for $40Mish is more likely though.

  18. NMR says:

    Those guys were at least three years younger, and had positions.
    That’s a lotta cheddar for a 37 yo DH.

  19. NMR says:

    $20m AAV would be a worse contract than the one Tim Lincecum signed.
    I’ll buy you both a beer if it happens. :)

  20. BostonsCommon says:

    You’re probably right about $20M/year. But I don’t see him taking a pay cut from the 2 year $26M contract he just out performed. I would think that is going to be about the starting point.

  21. BostonsCommon says:

    Kendrys Morales receives a qualifying offer from Seattle…. Probably wasn’t ever going to end up in Pittsburgh anyway.

  22. BostonsCommon says:

    Obvious decision on Morneau… I will be surprised if AJ doesn’t get one.
    Maybe the Pirates decided not to negotiate against themselves. If AJ says it’s the Pirates or retirement, then there’s no reason to protect yourself from him signing somewhere else.
    I’m interested to see what happens here.

  23. NMR says:

    That would be paying him to hit like David Ortiz(which he won’t) AND giving up your first round draft pick while you’re at it.
    Not sure there are many teams out there who can stomach something like that.

  24. NMR says:

    Huntington doesn’t want to pay him $14m.

  25. BostonsCommon says:

    Yea, we’ve talked about it before I think. Just because that’s market value for AJ, doesn’t mean the Pirares should be willing to pay it. I know they need to get value, just seems to me like it’s not worth the risk if letting him walk away to save what, maybe $4M? Do you see AJ taking any less than $10M?

  26. Travis Sawchik says:

    FYI, 13 players were extended qualifying offers today. Burnett was not one of them …

    OF Shin-Soo Choo
    OF Curtis Granderson
    SS Stephen Drew
    2B Robinson Cano
    1B Kendrys Morales
    1B Mike Napoli
    C Brian McCann
    SP Ubaldo Jimenez
    SP Ervin Santana
    SP Hiroki Kuroda

  27. Travis Sawchik says:


    Thanks. And interesting thought on front-loading deals….I suppose clubs are hoping/assuming the value of player and revenues will keep inflating at unreal rates to devalue those dollars as the contract lengthens

  28. Travis Sawchik says:

    Cards are going to get a comp pick for losing Beltran and they’ll replace Beltran with Taveras. They keep getting it done

  29. NMR says:

    Boy, I honestly don’t have any idea what AJ would want.
    But I do know $14m has always been too much from the Pirates end.
    This move says more about what to expect of the payroll limit than anything about AJ as a person or player. Last season, AJ accounted for roughly 11% of the payroll. A qualifying offer would’ve require payroll to jump up to $127m for that ratio to remain the same.
    Even with the TV money in play, I think it would be wildly optomistic to imagine ALL of it going straight to payroll. An opening day budget of $90m is the absolute most I expect to see. Accordingly, I don’t see the Pirates offering AJ more than $10m.

  30. NMR says:

    You think they’ll get creative and go with Taveras in CF with Craig in RF and Adams at 1B?
    Hard to imagine Holliday/Taveras/Craig would be anyworse defensively than Holliday/Jay/Beltran.

  31. Travis Sawchik says:

    Well, I think Jay is still in their future plans, he has three years of club control remaining, but a Taveras-Holliday-Beltran outfield could be pretty dynamic, offensively, in 2014

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