Will the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic in sports influence the thinking of some of baseball’s biggest upcoming free agents — possibly giving the Cubs a better chance to keep stars such as Kris Bryant long-term?
Don’t bet on it.
“Guys like Kris are young; they’re very known commodities,” said Scott Boras, Bryant’s agent — who makes the case that Bryant and other top-of-the-market free agents are more immune to even the potentially extreme market volatility that might impact MLB in the coming months and even years.
“He’s an established guy, a very proven player. And there aren’t many players like him,” Boras said. “Just plays so many positions; he’s a power hitter; .900-OPS players are hard to find. And you always have the [added] benefit of less wear and tear [from a shortened season] going forward.”
Boras, who secured a single-winter record $1 billion in contracts for six clients alone this past offseason, has a clear agenda in making his case. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a persuasive case.
At the very least it offers a glimpse into the thinking of Bryant’s camp during what could be a time of rethinking contract offers and free agency for many players throughout the game.
As Major League Baseball and the players' union grapple this week with the short-term economic issues involved in starting an abbreviated 2020 season less than two months from now, the longer-term economic impact of the pandemic on the game might be the only thing more difficult to predict than the magnitude and length of the health-risk factors.
Even assuming the sport can resume by next season with a relatively normal schedule, will fans be allowed back in stadiums by then? In what numbers and under what restrictions? How many fans will want to return once elbow-to-elbow gatherings are allowed again? And at what kind of ticket prices?
It’s sure to influence teams’ approaches to their payroll commitments and at least some teams’ postures toward free agents.
For example, the Brewers, who signed Yasmani Grandal 16 months ago to an $18.5 million deal for 2019 as a win-now move, are especially impacted by attendance shifts because they have relatively small broadcast deals and have drawn well in recent years.
The impact will certainly be felt in upcoming markets. Even Boras acknowledges older players or middle-class players who might be in line for two-or-three-year deals could be on shakier ground.
“Great players in the game, when you go back historically, always have demand because there’s only a few,” Boras said. “With the greater the supply of the type of player, obviously the greater amount of options the teams have to look at.”
Boras has long argued that Bryant has unique value in any market because of his ability to play third base and any outfield position as well as to fill any key spot in a batting order with characteristics traditionally sought in that spot — including the leadoff hole the Cubs committed to him before the season was suspended.
“This is the man who is on the island,” Boras said during the spring. “In our office that’s how we refer to Kris Bryant. He’s the Island Boy. He can be the leadoff hitter, and he can be a 3 or 4 hitter. And he can play five positions. He is the Island Boy.”
He also called Bryant “Elmer’s glue” during the same conversation because of all those gaps he can fill offensively or defensively.
“Bryant just fits all needs,” Boras reiterated this week. “He just really helps an organization, a manager, who he is as a personality, his discipline — all those kinds of things.”
In other words, nothing has changed in Bryant’s position or the thinking when it comes to his value — whether you’re talking about a possible extension with the Cubs, which he said he’s open to, or a shot at free agency in 18 months.
“Remember, with star players, because of the length of the contract, it allows more flexibility to adjust to current issues of the day, on the front and back ends,” said Boras, envisioning a team back-loading a long-term contract according to anticipated revenue shifts.
The economic downturn for the industry might be inevitable short-term, and might even take a typically active team out of the big-ticket end of a given market for now, but it won’t stop shrewd teams from thinking long-term, he said.
“What it’s going to impact is that there’s going to be major markets who obviously didn’t make money but didn’t lose, and so they’re going to turn around and want to make money next year,” he said, “and they figure their chances for winning a world championship are greater because there may be a lot of clubs that are less likely to invest in major free agents for a year or two.”
In other words, Kris Bryant, meet the Yankees or the Phillies or (fill in the blank).
“For the players who are the great players — because there’s always only a few great players — I don’t think it’s going to have anywhere near the impact,” Boras said, “because those great players are somebody you would sign for 10 years, and you can defer the cost. You just backload the contracts. You can do things with long-term contracts; you could wait for better times but still get the player for today.
“By the way, if I don’t sign that player, and I wait to sign that same star player when I do have the money in 2023, he’s going to cost me more.”
Arbitration-eligible players might not be impacted by a short-term economic downturn the way some mid- and lower-tiered free agents might.
The agreement struck between MLB and the union in March included a provision that translates partial-season performances for the purpose of arbitration cases — which involve industry outsiders as judges when players and teams are forced to go to hearings.
What about the likelihood players might be more likely to accept extension offers from their own teams in this economic climate?
“It’s an individual world,” Boras said, “but I think the question would be, ‘Are clubs more likely to offer extensions?’“Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.