The two most recent relief pitcher signings in Major League Baseball’s offseason were Brad Brach who signed with the Chicago Cubs and Hunter Strickland who was inked by the Seattle Mariners. The impact they will have on their teams will be determined during the 2019 season. However, their contracts are what continue to define a changing face of free agency. Let’s just say the “gig” economy is alive and well in Major League Baseball.
Both Brach and Strickland signed one-year contracts, bringing the number of free agent relief pitchers to commit to one-year deals this offseason to nineteen. According to Spotrac, only 28 free agent relief pitchers have found new teams. That means nearly three quarters of those signed are on one-year deals. And only four of the 28 received a three-year deal.
But is the one-year deal just a reality of the relief pitcher market? Apparently not. When looking at the second base market, a similar pattern emerges. Of the 13 second baseman to sign as of this writing, eight were signed to one-year deals, and no free agent had received more than a two-year contract. Only three free agent third baseman have signed. All three have signed one-year deals.
Free agency, once seen as being the greatest dream of all players, is now becoming their worst nightmare. More and more free agents are finding that the leverage has switched, ironically, to the small-market teams who are developing young, talented rosters. These teams would actually be hindered by adding a high-priced veteran to their mix. With a new collective bargaining agreement scheduled for 2021, the players association is crying out against collusion. But those cries are ringing hollow with young, low-priced teams that are winning games. It’s also worth noting that even teams like the Yankees and Dodgers seem to be dropping out of the Machado and Harper sweepstakes to make what, for them, are budget deals to fill other roster spots.
There will always be big dollars and long-term commitments for players such as Bryce Harper and, down the road, Francisco Lindor. They are young, have proven production and possess the tools that analytics-driven teams value such as power, bat speed, velocity, and defensive speed. But while other veteran free agents could count on multiple suitors for long-term deals and big money, many are finding that the “new free agency” means being a one-year rental.