Inexplicably, Yu Darvish is still a free agent. After 7 years as a Nippon Ham Fighter and 6 as a Texas Ranger and Los Angeles Dodger, he’s earned the right to be selective about his future employment. Recently, Mike Mazzeo of the New York Daily News provided an update on his impending decision: “Yu Darvish is waiting to see if the Dodgers or Yankees can clear enough salary to add him as a free agent.”
Read that again and let it sink in: “Yu Darvish is waiting to see if the Dodgers or Yankees can clear enough salary to add him as a free agent.”
The magnitude of that statement is matched only by its absurdity. When “Dodgers or Yankees” belongs in a sentence with “clear enough salary,” the baseball world has undergone a monumental change. According to Forbes, the Yankees and Dodgers are the two most valuable franchises in baseball, weighing in at $3.7 billion and $2.75 billion respectively. When the two richest teams need to “clear salary” to sign the best free agent pitcher available, there will be consequences. Every aspect of that sentence could have major ramifications for baseball as we know it.
“Yu Darvish is waiting…”
Waiting: the verb that best describes the entire offseason. Yu Darvish is waiting, and so must we. But the implication isn’t that he’s waiting around for a better offer. He’s waiting for two specific teams. If the Tigers or Marlins offered him the largest contract (EXTREME hypothetical), would he continue to wait or would he sign?
One interpretation is that he only wants to play for either the Dodgers or Yankees. Rarely does this ever happen in baseball, and even more rarely with a top tier free agent. If Darvish takes it a step farther and refuses to play for any of the other 28 teams, this is will damage the collective value of his peers.
There’s a reason why barely any free agents have signed. When the top free agent of a position group signs a contract, it sets the market for everyone else. For example, the Cubs might attempt to sign Darvish, but if he goes elsewhere they might be inclined to offer more money to Alex Cobb. Additionally, if Darvish is worth $25 million per year, and Cobb is not quite as valuable, his price tag adjusts accordingly. If Darvish gives a discount to the Yankees or Dodgers, Cobb’s value takes a hit because he compares less favorably. So does every other starting pitcher on the market.
Perhaps even more distressing is the impact this would have on parody and competitive balance. The 2016 Cubs and 2017 Astros proved that extreme tanking pays dividends. As Dayn Perry pointed out, up to 11 teams aren’t even trying to make the playoffs this year. If mass tanking is an earthquake, selective free agency is an immediate aftershock. Why would Darvish, a 31-year-old pitcher with Tommy John in his past, consider a tanking team? If winning matters at all, of course, he’ll only consider the Yankees or Dodgers: the two most tank-proof teams in baseball. The chances of either of them going through a difficult rebuild are close to zero.
“…to see if the Dodgers or Yankees…”
If the Dodgers or Yankees need to clear payroll- ever- the MLBPA is in trouble. The collective bargaining agreement allows for teams to spend up to $197 million on player salary and benefits in 2018 without paying a luxury tax- essentially a soft cap. Additionally, the tax is progressive, so teams pay a higher tax every consecutive year they are over the cap. The Dodgers and Yankees are trying to stay under the cap to “reset” their tax percentage.
But the effect of this reset year is the soft cap has hardened. The soft cap was never intended to force teams to stop spending altogether once they hit a certain point (or so the players thought). In practice, the luxury tax limit is functioning as a hard cap, which is literally not what the MLBPA bargained for. There are whispers of words like “collusion” and “strike,” but those are still nebulous concepts at this point. What we do know is that the collective bargaining agreement suddenly started working a lot better for the owners than the players, and no one even got to negotiate.
“…can clear enough salary…”
In August 2012, the Red Sox sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, and Josh Beckett to the Dodgers in an infamous salary dump. The Dodgers acquired players who were still pretty good at baseball, just not at the value of their contracts. This is an essential function of teams like the Dodgers and Yankees- being able to take on big contracts for a price. In a sense, they’re the loan sharks of baseball. The Yankees already performed this function once this offseason, grabbing Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins.
This begs an important question- If the teams that normally take on big salaries need to shed payroll, where would it go? It’s a bit of a catch-22. Where does the garbage go when the landfill is full? In the wake of the Stanton trade, the Yankees sent Chase Headley to the Padres in a small salary dump of their own, but this is highly irregular. If the two wealthiest franchises in baseball can’t afford their players, who possibly can? Furthermore, what does that mean for Darvish?
“…to add him as a free agent.”
It’s now February, and free agency hasn’t gotten started. Pitchers and catchers report in just about two weeks, and nearly the entire free agent class has nowhere to go. What happens then? Do players start to work out on their own? As Ben Linbergh recently revisited, this happened once before when the strike wiped out the 1994-1995 offseason. What if they don’t work out at all? Would players be able to get in shape in time for the season if they sign on March 15? What about March 31? or May 1? It seems impossible that players could go unsigned that long. Then again, it’s already February…