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Longoria, Samardzija sound off on free agency labor strife

Several Giants joined players around baseball in expressing frustration with the number of major leaguers — big names and small — who remain unsigned, even as position players report to Spring Training Monday.

The 2018-19 offseason is the second in a row in which team spending and signings are down, and the kind of players who would have had no problem finding contracts just three years ago have been left in the cold.

Jeff Samardzija noted last offseason’s down market was billed as a fluke, based on this year’s free agent class:

“Everyone kind of went along with it last year because everybody was saying, ‘Oh [Manny] Machado and [Bryce] Harper are going to be available so we all want to save our funds for that.’ Well now that’s happened and I’m sure every team knows whether they’re in or not on Machado or Harper … but then they’re not allocating that cash elsewhere.”

Ching Wong/SFBay
Ching Wong/SFBay
San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeff Samardzija answers questions during Giants media day at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 8, 2019.

While Harper and Machado, each 26, are the names on everyone’s lips there are many other free agents, perhaps lacking in the superstar appeal, who could nevertheless provide significant impacts to any number of teams, yet they remain un-tethered.

Fewer people, for instance, are talking about guys like third baseman Mike Moustakas, utility man Marwin Gonzalez or center fielder Cameron Maybin. 

Moustakas was one of the early victims of this brave new free agent market. After attempting to wait out the strangely quiet market in the wake of a 2017 season in which he was a 29-year-old All Star and hit .272 with 38 home runs for the Royals, he finally settled for re-signing with Kansas City on a one-year $5.5 million dollar deal in early March 2018. 

He was ultimately traded to the Brewers in late July and helped Milwaukee to the postseason. But a year later he found himself again on the outside looking in as Spring Training opened, and it wasn’t until Feb. 17  that he reached an agreement with the Brewers for another one-year deal, this one for $10 million. 

Maybin and Gonzalez remain unsigned as position players report to camp this week. And they are among many.

Excluding Harper and Machado, there are 182 free agents hung out to dry according to Baseball Reference, 109 of whom are between the ages of 27 and 35.

Scot Tucker/SFBay
Scot Tucker/SFBay
Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Manny Machado (8) connects for an RBI single in the third inning as the Los Angeles Dodgers face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, September 28, 2018.

Social media has been rife with players speaking out about the untenable nature of the current market. Samardzija, Evan Longoria and Buster Posey have been leading the charge from San Francisco alongside players like Sean Doolittle, Justin Verlander and Jake Arrieta.

Longoria noted that the unsigned superstars are perhaps the least concerning part of the trend:

“Harper and Machado are really not what the rest of us [players] are talking about, those guys are gonna make their money. It’s the other players that are in their late-20s [and] early-30s that have gotten to free agency at this point, and we as players know that they’re still playing at a very competitive level and can go out and help teams, [but] they’re not getting jobs.”

The Gold Glove third baseman is not at risk of getting stuck in free agency limbo like some of his colleagues because he’s signed through 2022, at which point he will be 36 and likely ready to hang up his cleats. But he’s been a stalwart in the movement to bring attention to the labor strife anyway:

“Obviously it’s not about me, it’s for players like Steven Duggar and our younger players looking three years down the line going into arbitration and free agency.”

Duggar, who is just coming off his rookie season and will become arbitration eligible in 2022 and enter free agency in 2025, is nervous about what he’s seeing. The 25-year-old has less than a season in the league and spent the last several years devoted to breaking into it, not to understanding the intricacies of its labor market. He said:

“I’ve just started really looking into it, there’s obviously still probably a lot that I don’t know about it, but just from my point of view it’s concerning. When my time comes, what’s gonna happen? Is it gonna be the same way?”

A major factor in the market is the salary arbitration system. Teams have contractual control over players until they’ve earned six years of service time. Players who set the minor leagues on fire and make it to the big leagues before they’re old enough to drink like Machado and Harper, have the benefit of hitting the free agency market in their prime mid-20s,  but they are the outliers. 

Most players, like Duggar who made it to the big leagues at 24, enter free agency in their late 20s or early 30s. When they notch three years of service time they’re eligible for arbitration deals with their current organizations. But those contracts are generally less-lucrative without competition between teams to drive up the price. Nevertheless, with the shift in the way clubs are viewing free agents, those deals are looking like the safer option. 

Samardzija believes this lose-lose conundrum for players is a major contributor to the current stagnant market:

“When the only guys that are available are early-30s guys because all the young guys signed bad deals, that also affects the free-agent market. But why are those guys signing young deals? That’s the part that needs to be talked about.” 

Even as recently as three years ago, teams were willing to pay free agents based on their past performance. But with the advent of more precise and potentially predictive analytics based on age and career progression, many teams are loath to count on past performance as a justification for handing out longer, fatter contracts to free agents.

Said the Giants newly hired president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi:

“I think that some of the slowdown that we see in the market is players valuing themselves based on what they feel they’ve earned in their careers, and front offices maybe being a little more oriented towards what they can expect from this player in 2019 going forward. I think all things being equal, we kind of prefer the younger player.”

Ching Wong/SFBay
Ching Wong/SFBay
San Francisco Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi answers questions during Giants media day at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, February 8, 2019.

With this kind of philosophy being expressed by front offices either implicitly or explicitly, Samardzija said players are feeling more pressure than ever to sign team-friendly deals with their current organizations instead of risking the market.

“[Owners] are just taking a tactical approach to shorten the window for guys to sign [and] they [either] get guys to panic and sign bad deals as veterans [or] they get guys to sign young pre-arb deals because they don’t want to test the waters of free agency. Hopefully as players, we can get on the same page and figure out how [we] can change the rhetoric of what’s going on and get these owners excited to sign guys, but we also gotta stop depleting our free agent field by signing these young deals.”

Longoria said he hopes these labor issues don’t reach 1994 strike proportions, but said he believes it’s imperative that players, owners and Major League Baseball come together to adapt to this new climate before the conflict reaches a boil.

“The last thing I want is a work stoppage because it wouldn’t harm me as much as it’s gonna harm a first or second year guy that doesn’t have a job. I think before it comes to that point we need to sit down and have some serious discussions about the direction of arbitration, free agency and all those issues.”

In speaking out, Longoria aims to change the traditional rhetoric that players are arrogant and greedy for fighting for more money. Such an argument tends to ignore the fact that the conflict is between millionaire players and billionaire owners.

“We as a union and as the players want every team to want to be competitive and in order to be competitive you have to have the best players on the field. It’s not that the players are selfish and we want more money—the money has nothing to do with it. It’s just the issues that we’ve bargained for over the years and the privilege to go to free agency.”

Samardzija hopes players can come together to combat this issue, but the current collective bargaining agreement is signed through 2021 and he said aside from information about potential rule changes for the 2019 season he’s yet to hear anything from the Major League Baseball Players Association on any plan of action between now and then.

The MLBPA declined to comment for this story, but when asked about a possible strike Samardzija said:

“Everybody’s jobs on the line, everybody’s performance is rated and watched and it’s the same thing for the people running the union. We’re gonna have to get the arbitration moved up a year earlier, we’re gonna have to get guys to free agency earlier and it seems like there might be only one way to get that, but we’ll see. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that because we want to keep the fans happy.”

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