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