Following the games played on July 30 of last season, the St. Louis Cardinals had, per Baseball Prospectus’s odds, a 19.3% chance of making it to the 2017 postseason and a 14.9% chance of making it to the National League Division Series. While the Cardinals were hardly out of contention, the odds were long enough that rumors the Cardinals would sell players with soon-to-be expiring contracts, most notably veteran starting pitcher Lance Lynn, were omnipresent. Some of us were sure enough he would be dealt that we began writing retrospectives of his Cardinals career.
As it turns out, Lance Lynn remained a Cardinal for the rest of the season. Although Lynn has expressed interest in interviews in remaining with the team in the long term, he rejected the team’s $17.4 million qualifying offer in November. This was unsurprising—since becoming a starter in 2012, Lynn has been the 28th most valuable pitcher in Major League Baseball by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. This may not look jaw-dropping on first glance, but consider that #45 on the list, Jeff Samardzija, signed a five-year, $90 million contract following the 2015 season. On paper, Lynn had the opportunity to secure a multi-year contract which would guarantee him many millions more than the qualifying offer would garner.
Entering the off-season, MLB Trade Rumors ranked Lynn as the 9th best free agent of the 2017-18 class, and as the 4th best starting pitcher on the market behind Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and Masahiro Tanaka (who did not opt out of his contract with the New York Yankees, as MLBTR expected, thus increasing Lynn’s standing). Despite worrisome peripherals in his first season back from Tommy John surgery, his track record made him an attractive, if not elite, free agent.
Of the eight players listed ahead of Lance Lynn on the MLB Trade Rumors top free agents list, six are still free agents—only the aforementioned Tanaka, who never actually hit free agency, and now-Colorado Rockies reliever Wade Davis, are under contract. The Giancarlo Stanton trade and Shohei Ohtani signing were supposed to be the events which kicked the hot stove season into full gear, but this has been, to put it generously, an uneventful winter.
There have been many theories as to what has caused the relative lack of player movement this off-season. The most salacious theory is owner collusion—it is a heavy charge to levy, and one which is largely circumstantial at this point, though history (SB Nation’s Marc Normandin wrote a thorough timeline of collusion last week) shows that it cannot be dismissed as an impossibility.
Another theory is that the sabermetric movement has, intentionally or unintentionally, created an anti-labor environment. The premise of Moneyball, after all, is that the Oakland Athletics under General Manager Billy Beane were able to field a 103-win team despite one of baseball’s lowest payrolls. The most enduring star of the 2002 Athletics was not American League MVP Miguel Tejada nor Cy Young Award winner Barry Zito, but Beane, who glamorized a new wave of baseball analysis that allowed teams to compete with low-cost players.
By and large, I don’t buy this theory. Yes, the rise of advanced analytics has probably hurt Eric Hosmer, a good-not-great player whose case for a nine-figure free agent deal largely centers around intangibles, but it has also created increased awareness of players such as Carlos Santana, a former catcher forced to move down the defensive spectrum to first base whose ability to draw walks would have been relatively overlooked in previous eras. A reallocation of money towards players believed to be more valuable seems just.
But there is certainly credibility to the notion that MLB owners and front offices are using the financial structure of baseball to their advantage. Generally speaking, owners have been more than willing to cut costs when possible, with or without sabermetrics. A team could spend close to $100 million on Lance Lynn and expect him to be a slightly above-average pitcher, sure, but it would be far more cost-effective to invest in its farm system and develop a pitcher who would make the league’s minimum salary for three years, followed by three years of artificially-suppressed one-year contracts through the salary arbitration process.
It was one thing when the Athletics, who genuinely could not afford to keep Jason Giambi or Johnny Damon in Oakland, focused on developing cost-controlled players and signing undervalued players such as Scott Hatteberg or Chad Bradford to fill out its MLB roster. It’s another thing when the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox are no longer signing the Giambis or Damons.
The long-term solution for the players is to negotiate a better Collective Bargaining Agreement, but in the short term, current free agents are stuck in a system which seems to value them less than it did 15-20 years ago. This also makes how to view Lance Lynn complicated from the perspective of a Cardinals fan.
As I noted in the post which is linked in the first paragraph of this post, I am personally an enormous Lance Lynn fan, but as with most baseball fans, my first and foremost loyalty is to the baseball team of my youth. I loved Jon Jay throughout his Cardinals career, but when he was traded to the San Diego Padres, I didn’t suddenly become a Padres fan. I certainly didn’t become a Chicago Cubs fan when he signed with them the next season. Despite my fandom, I just had to look up whether or not Jon Jay was still a free agent (note: he is).
By and large, fandom of players is conditional—if Lance Lynn signs with a team other than the Cardinals, I will wish him well, but my emotional attachment to his success or failure will diminish significantly. In the abstract, I hope Lance Lynn signs for as much money as he can possibly earn, though because I have questions about his long-term viability, I’d prefer he make a ton of money with another team.
But as top players remain unsigned, Lance Lynn’s cost could be going down. From a Cardinals perspective, this would be a good thing—the Cardinals may not want to spend $80 million on Lance Lynn, but surely they’d be willing to spend something on him, or offering him $17.4 million via the qualifying offer would be a strange risk to take. As somebody who enjoys watching Lance Lynn pitch and believes that signing him, to use a probably hyperbolic example, to a one-year, $10 million contract would be a tremendous bargain for my favorite team, this would theoretically be the best of both worlds. But that his market would fall so dramatically would be terrible news for Lance Lynn, no matter how one spins it.
Contracts are almost never mutually beneficial in the end—sure, the pre-2017 extension of Carlos Martinez allowed the Cardinals to sign an excellent player to a contract which will, more times than not, be under market value while also allowing Martinez to gain financial security in the form of $51 million which means more to him than to Cardinals ownership, but somebody is going to come out ahead. As a fan of the player, it makes sense to root for him to outperform the contract because it will allow him to earn more on his next contract, but in the meantime, Martinez would (with a healthy dose of retrospect) be leaving millions of dollars on the table.
There is no easy answer for how to balance my sincere desire for the St. Louis Cardinals to be the best baseball team they can be with my sincere desire for baseball players to make as much money as they possibly can. I suppose I can always hold out hope that the Chicago Cubs sign Lance Lynn to an eighty-year, $40 billion per year contract, but realistically, any possible outcome has its drawbacks.