Bryce Harper has been an All-Star six times in seven seasons.
Photo: AJC file photo
Photo: AJC file photo

Is the winter of MLB’s non-spending such a bad thing?

The story of this offseason has been a raging non-story. Neither Bryce Harper nor Manny Machado, apparently in line to sign the two biggest contracts ever, has signed a contract of any size. This has prompted outrage from contemporaries – Christian Yelich and Kris Bryant expressed dismay; Justin Verlander tweeted this week, “System is broken” – and even some who cover the sport for a living are in high dudgeon. 

The absence of a bidding war for Harper/Machado has been cast as the latest example of What’s Really Wrong With Baseball. (Previous iterations involved pace of play, PEDs and – going back 50 years – the height of the mound.) Nobody’s trying to win! If they were, they’d have forked over mega-millions for Harper/Machado, the same way it was done … well, just a few years ago. Now it’s everybody in the tank! Owners are greedy! Free Bryce! Free Manny! 

Locally, Braves fans are wondering why the local club hasn’t done more, as if signing Josh Donaldson for $23 million was doing nothing. Why not take a run at Harper/Machado? Why not bring back Craig Kimbrel at top dollar to work one inning 40 times a year? Are they trying to win? Don’t the biggest winners spend the biggest? 

That last part has been, largely if not always, true. Big spenders do tend to be good teams, though examples to the contrary exist. Over the past decade, the small-market Royals won the World Series more often than the Dodgers and Yankees, though less often than the Red Sox. The Giants ranked among the top 10 in payroll when they won in 2010, 2012 and 2014, though never among the top five. But we’ve lately seen the teams that can afford to do anything deciding that, after further review, some restraint is warranted. 

The imperial Yankees held a sell-off of aging assets before the trading deadline of 2016. They didn’t quite tank – can’t get away with that in New York – but they did recalibrate. They added prospects, one being the burgeoning Gleyber Torres, acquired from the Cubs for Aroldis Chapman. The Yankees won 96 games last year, good enough for a wild card, with the seventh-highest payroll as of opening day. For them, that represented a belt-tightening 

The Dodgers won the National League for the second year running, and for the second consecutive winter they pared back. In December 2017, the Braves traded Matt Kemp to L.A. in a mutual salary dump, the Dodgers shedding the contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir and Brandon McCarthy. Shocking the world, Kemp made the 2018 All-Star team. Five months later, the Dodgers sent him, Alex Wood and Yasiel Puig to the Reds. (They also let Machado, a midseason rental acquired because of Corey Seager’s absence, exit as a free agent.) 

The reason the Dodgers keep making such trades is that they have younger and cheaper alternatives, yes, but also because they dread the luxury tax. If you exceed the threshold, you pay a 20 percent tax on every dollar of overage. If you exceed it three years running, you pay 50 percent. That has become a deterrent for teams that, in a league without a salary cap, might otherwise operate unfettered. There is, however, an even greater deterrent. It’s called reality. 

The best baseball player since Barry Bonds is Mike Trout. He has played seven full seasons, over which the Angels have made the playoffs once and were swept in the Division Series. They haven’t broken .500 since 2015. Trout is a difference-maker who hasn’t made of a difference, which shouldn’t be that shocking – Bonds, no worse than the second-best player ever, graced one World Series – but somehow is. 

David Samson, once the president of the Marlins, told the Wall Street Journal he recalls the last inning of the 2003 World Series, in which his wild-card team trumped the Yankees. He noted that Derek Jeter wasn’t due to bat. He also observed another Miami-based team reaching four consecutive NBA finals, winning twice, after assembling the troika of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. 

Said Samson: “When Bosh, Wade and LeBron say to themselves they are going to play together, they are deciding the future of the NBA. Baseball has no players who can do that.” 

In October, Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos spoke of his philosophy regarding splurging. Such a purchase, he said, would have to be “the one final piece for which you scratch and pay top dollar. That 25th piece is going to carry the other 24.” 

In all of baseball, is there such a player? Harper played on four division winners with the Nationals – in 2015 he was the league’s unanimous MVP – but never won a playoff series. Over the past three seasons, his Baseball-Reference WAR was an aggregate 7.5; Freddie Freeman’s was 17.2. Having Harper would make any team better, but there’s no guarantee he’ll ever make a team a champion. The same goes for Machado, who hadn’t played on a club that lasted beyond the Division Series until he alit in Los Angeles. The same goes for every player in baseball. 

The baseball writer Joe Sheehan argues that mid-table teams – not the upper crust and not the tankers – who most need Harper/Machado. Those middle-tier teams, however, tend to be most fearful of a massive contract that would constrict their chances of building around a big-ticket guy. And what if that guy isn’t as splendid as advertised? The Dodgers and Yankees could shrug off such a reversal; the Braves and Brewers could not. 

The Albert Pujols contract – in 2011, he signed with the Angels for $240 million over 10 seasons; he’s still owed $87 mil – stands as an example of what not to do, but it’s a dated example. Every front office has an analytics department now; none will ever spend that much on a 31-year-old. One lesson taught by analytics is that you pay for what a guy will do, not what he has done.

Harper and Machado are 26, presumably entering their prime. But Kemp was 27 and coming off a near-MVP year when he re-upped with the Dodgers for $160 million over eight seasons; he has since been traded four times because of that contract. 

Analytics have enabled teams to put something approximating a dollar value on what was once ineffable. If you aren’t the best player in baseball – and unless you’re Trout, you aren’t – why should you be paid like you are? When Scott Boras says, “My guy’s worth this much,” clubs can point to their data sets and say, “No, he’s not.” 

Because baseball owners have colluded in the past, many have taken to brandishing the C-word again. I’m no fan of baseball owners, but this shoe mightn’t fit. As ESPN’s Sam Miller is fond of saying, there are no dumb teams anymore. All 30 grasp that no baseball player can do for their franchise what LeBron did for the Heat and Cavaliers. Great as he is, Trout can only bat four/five times a game. 

I understand that fans always want their teams to spend, but can we fault a club – the Braves, say – for its attempt to spend wisely? Were not the contracts awarded Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton two of the reasons this organization Braves launched its great reset? Can you point to one club, Yankees and Dodgers included, that isn’t working hard to grow its own cost-controllable talent?

I’m sorry, but I don’t consider the time it’s taking for Harper/Machado to find a buyer home an indictment of the sport. On the contrary, I see it as a case of the Grand Old Game wising up.

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About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.