RIck Porcello

Free agency in baseball is a mess and players are worried about the game

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NBC Sports Boston Illustration

Free agency in baseball is a mess and players are worried about the game

When Kyrie Irving walked back his commitment about staying with the Celtics, fans in Boston were apoplectic. Instead of assuaging fears as the rumor mill continued to heat up, Irving told everyone about his future, “Ask me July 1st.” 

This certainly wasn’t the answer anyone wanted to hear, but on a macro level, at least there is a date involved. If you are an NBA fan or player, at least you know the signings will be fast and furious come the start of July. Trade specials will dominate NBC Sports Boston, ESPN, etc… and social media will be abuzz with the latest speculation and transactions. 

Hey, Major League Baseball -- you might want to re-examine your model. 

I love baseball. The sound of a 98-mph fastball hitting the back of a glove is one of the sweetest in sports. But it is getting harder and harder to defend a sport that continually pulls itself from the spotlight. 

The winter meetings have become nothing more than a few days at a nice resort for GMs, managers and reporters. I have to google when free agency begins in the majors. Even then, does the date matter? Players don’t sign until the snowbirds are making their way back north.

While the other leagues have made their sports year-round, baseball is retreating to the background as quickly as the confetti is cleared from Copley Square.  

The hot stove is ice cold and baseball is not a trending topic. Literally. According to Twitter’s analytics, not a single baseball player was in the top ten trends in 2018. Seven of the ten athletes were in the NBA, two were in the NFL (including Tom Brady) and one was Serena Williams. 

Twitter is certainly not the end all, be all, but it gives us an idea of what is driving the conversation. Spoiler alert: It’s not baseball. 

As I sit at my computer on Thursday, February 14th, there are nearly 100 free agents without contracts in baseball. And we aren’t only talking about middle relievers and utility players. Some of the game’s biggest names are sitting at home taking BP or throwing bullpens at makeshift camps. 

Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, Marwin Gonzales, and Mike Mustakas are all players waiting by the phone for an offer. 

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And, of course, Craig Kimbrel remains unsigned, a case which is a hot topic in Ft. Myers. 

The closer is still available and while anything can change, Dave Dombrowski reiterated on Wednesday, he’s not at the top of the Red Sox bullpen list.

“I think most of the guys we would talk to would be big league invites, minor league contracts. The depth we have in our bullpen, we like.”

Kimbrel was reportedly looking for a six-year deal in the ballpark of $100 million. Subsequent reports suggested he backed off the years and nine-figure demands, but he would still like a multi-year deal.

So he sits and waits and while his former teammates are mired in the sunny monotony of PFP drills. 

Chris Sale, who himself will become a free agent at the conclusion of the 2019 season, was careful with his words but still managed to express his displeasure.

Sale told reporters on Wednesday, “I don’t want to get too far into it with the politics of baseball and all that stuff, but [Kimbrel’s] as good as it gets. He 100 percent makes any team better that he plays for, right? And it’s crazy to think that there really hasn’t been a whole lot of traction with him.”

Unfortunately for baseball and its fans, this isn’t an isolated incident. Last season we also saw a lull in free agency.

The trend in 2018 was enough to worry Red Sox starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi, who knew he didn’t want the stress of waiting around. 

“It’s tough. You don’t know what team you’re going to be helping, what your role is going to be and you know it makes it hard. I didn’t want to deal with that.”

Which is why Eovaldi told his representation to get a deal done and fast. Eovaldi said on Wednesday, “I told my agency, even if its not the best deal I want to sign early. Because anything to me is going to be better than where I was at. I didn’t want to have that pressure coming into spring training.”

How nice for ownership.

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Listen, I understand there isn’t going to be a lot of sympathy for guys who get paid millions of dollars to play baseball. But the teams are pulling in truckloads of cash and in some instances appear to not be reinvesting that money on the field. 

Last year MLB saw record gross revenues, pulling in $10.3 billion. According to Forbes magazine, Major League Baseball has experienced record growth for 16 consecutive seasons and overall revenue growth of 377% since 1992.

On the flip side, during the 2018 season players saw a dip in average salaries for the first time since 2004. In a report released by the Players' Association, league salaries have stagnated after years of gains. 

The average salary in 2018 was $4,095,686, down $1,436 from $4,097,122 during the 2017 season. 

I know, I know the world’s smallest violin. But stay with me here.

Last season 14 of the 30 teams in baseball finished under .500. And while the NL Central and the NL West both needed a Game 163 to determine playoff seeding, the other four divisions were won by at least a six-game margin. 

Three teams (the Royals, White Sox and Orioles) finished with more than 100 losses and five other teams finished with 95 losses or more. It is the first time in MLB history eight teams have finished with 95-plus in the loss column.

Winning teams continue to invest, while losing teams, despite revenue sharing designed to help parity in the sport, seem happy to go on vacation October 1st. 

It is causing enough concern that the MLBPA notified the commissioner’s office in January about matters involving the Marlins and Pirates. 

This is what worries Rick Porcello. The Red Sox right-handed pitcher is thinking about the welfare of the game and its fans. 

“Guys are going to make money, guys are going to get paid but it’s about the game, keeping the fans engaged, keeping them interested and basically giving them what they want and should have as a die-hard baseball fan.”

His teammate Chris Sale echoed those concerns saying, "I think, obviously, with half the league just showing up for checks, it doesn’t help. Not trying to win, those kinds of things, so obviously your market kind of goes down a little bit.”

Players I spoke with were reluctant to make harsh accusations about the current state of business affairs, but the past two years mean their eyes are wide open. Porcello told me, “There’s definitely some concern, but trying to look at it from a neutral, objective standpoint you have to let the whole process play out and wait and see.”

The question is, can baseball afford to take a wait-and-see approach? 

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Last season league attendance was down 4% from 2017. It is said poor weather in the spring contributed to smaller crowds, but it was also the first time in 17 years average game attendance slipped below 30,000. 

There is a laundry list of things the league could do to make things better. Pace of play is obviously a huge issue, as is the marketing of star players. It would also help to hold “tanking” teams accountable. 

But players are the ones who make a team what it is. If they’re not on the field, they can’t help a franchise win.

As much as we all root for our home teams, we rally behind the guys who wear the uniform. No one steps to the plate as a kid pretending to be a generic Red Sox, we imagine ourselves as David Ortiz or Mookie Betts or Pedro Martinez. 

Players ARE the game. If they’re not on the field, what is baseball left with? Nothing but the sounds of silence. 

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Rick Porcello details challenges Red Sox will face defending World Series

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Rick Porcello details challenges Red Sox will face defending World Series

The Boston Red Sox won a franchise-record 108 games and the World Series in 2018, but they'll face an even more difficult task in 2019 of repeating as champions.

The last team to win back-to-back World Series titles was the New York Yankees in 2000, when they pulled off a three-peat. 

The Red Sox now face that uphill climb, and with it comes some unique challenges.

"You take away what we felt coming away from that last win in L.A.," Red Sox pitcher Rick Porcello said at spring training, per NESN. "It's a fine line, and there's a balance. You have to turn the page, too, and focus on what's in front of us: 2019. The ball clubs that we're going to be playing are going to feel differently about playing us. We're going to have a bit of a target on our back. We're expecting to get everyone's best game every night. We're going to have to play our best to stay where we want to stay."

The Red Sox have had mixed results in their three most recent World Series title defenses.

Boston was eliminated in the 2005 American League Division Series after a historic run in 2004. The Sox lost in Game 7 of the 2008 American League Championship Series following a dominant 2007 campaign, and they failed to even make the playoffs in 2014 as defending champs.

Repeating as World Series winners will be incredibly difficult for the Red Sox, but it's certainly not an impossible task given the fact they've brought back almost the same roster that won it all last season. 

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Potential free agent Rick Porcello sees 'troubling' landscape for veteran signings

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Potential free agent Rick Porcello sees 'troubling' landscape for veteran signings

A year from now, Rick Porcello could be the one who is unsigned come January or February. If his winter as a free agent is anything like this offseason or last, why wouldn’t he still be on the market, looking for a team to pay up for a proven starter, someone who is a former Cy Young winner and consistently eats up innings?

Lefty Dallas Keuchel can describe himself in the same way, and he’s still waiting for the right offer this winter.

Surveying the market landscape last month while at Red Sox Winter Weekend at Foxwoods, Porcello was alarmed, but not solely because the biggest names were still available, such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

“I don't think that it’s the fact that those guys are unsigned right now that’s troubling to me,” Porcello said. “I think it’s more the willingness of teams to invest in their own ballclub and want to win that is that is what’s concerning. Just because the fans are paying a lot...pay for a ticket, and watch a game, and the players are making money off of those tickets, as well as the team and ownership. And when you’re not giving it back to the fans 100 percent, then there’s something wrong there.

“That’s where I think that the system has broken down a little bit. Because ultimately this game, yeah, there’s a lot of money involved, and it’s a business on the ownership and players’ end and our careers. But it’s about the fans. That’s the one thing that makes this game go. And I don’t think we’re doing right by them by keeping some top-notch veteran free agents off rosters because the guys that you’re bringing up are getting paid less money and it’s an easy way to save.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily right, but again, that’s another thing that needs to be evaluated more and taken care of. At some point what’s best for the game of baseball has to be our top priority and our concern. It’s a great game, it’s our national pastime, it’s been around for over 100 years. There’s plenty of money to go around for everyone. So, let’s put the best product on the field. I just feel like enough’s enough with this already.”

Asked if he sees a solution to tanking, Porcello reiterated that “the best solution is to understand what’s best for the game of baseball and ultimately that’s how all of us will benefit from it.”

Players seem to be more and more aware of their labor issues, or at least, more of them seem to be vocal about their feelings. Or perhaps both.

“We are less [than] a month from the start of spring and once again some of our games biggest starts remain unsigned,” Evan Longoria recently wrote on Instagram. 

“Such a shame. [It] seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should ‘value’ for your team even be a consideration?

“It’s not your money, it’s money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of. Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team. And as players, we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for time and time again.”

Like Porcello, Sox owner John Henry gave his evaluation of the market at Winter Weekend. He said the performances teams are getting from their younger players has hurt the free-agent market.

“We have a lot more production something from younger players for whatever reason," Henry said. "I think that has negatively impacted free agency." 

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