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Ringolsby: Collusion Or Common Sense?

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Free agent J.D. Martinez had to "settle" for $110 million over five years.

In the final days of spring training, the free agent market began to clear up. On March 12—a mere 17 days before Opening Day—four free agents signed within hours of each other. Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez re-signed with the Rockies, righthander Jake Arrieta with the Phillies, righty Lance Lynn with the Twins and catcher Jonathan Lucroy with the Athletics.

Lynn, Lucroy and Gonzalez each signed for a year. Arrieta agreed to a three-year guarantee with Philadelphia. It wasn’t what the free agents were looking for, but then there weren’t many deals that met the expectations of players and their agents this winter.

Among the initial 84 free agent signings this offseason, just four signed a deal longer than four years.

There were 39 one-year deals, 32 two-year deals and nine three-year deals. Just Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain signed for more than three years.

Is it collusion or common sense?

The agents and Major League Baseball Players Association have indicated concerns that the owners are involved in collusion, as they were in the mid-1980s.

And, yes, teams such as the Marlins, Pirates and Rays opted to slash payroll and trade veterans this offseason.

But there are two other factors to consider.

This wasn’t one of those eye-popping free agent crops, like the one looming a year from now when, among others, the potential free agents include Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, both of whom will go on the market at age 26. They could be joined by a 30-year-old Clayton Kershaw, who can opt out of a contract that guarantees him $34 million in 2019 and $35 million in 2020.

The one position player who created a lot of conversation in this winter’s free agent class was Martinez. Agent Scott Boras initially threw out a $200 million price tag for Martinez after he switched agents and signed up with Boras.

Martinez’s market never developed, though, in light of his questionable defense in right field, which eliminated serious interest by many NL teams. But it’s not like Martinez is a pauper after signing a five-year, $110 million deal with the Red Sox.

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And it was just four springs ago that Martinez was released by the Astros out of minor league camp.

There also is the world of analytics.

The rise of analytics in the game, and their adoption by all 30 front offices, has created a homogeneity in how clubs operate. The data also validates what the eyes of scouts and field personal saw for years—players in their early to mid-30s have a limited upside. And once the new-breed executives get a look at their spreadsheets, the data affects their thought process when handing out long-term contracts with substantial commitments for players who are 35 and older.

It’s not like free agents have not received sizable annual salaries. They just haven’t received the lengthy guarantees.

Among the 50 contracts with the highest annual average value (AAV) in major league history, six were signed for the 2018 season, the second largest group of players of any year, behind only 11 in 2016. There were two a year ago—Yoenis Cespedes with the Mets, who is tied for seventh with an AAV of $27.5 million; and Stephen Strasburg with the Nationals, who is tied for 12th with a $25 million AAV.

There is still money being spent. It’s just the commitments aren’t as long.

This year, after the Rockies had an initial offer of $45 million for three years rejected by Greg Holland, their closer last year, they signed free agent closer Wade Davis to a three-year, $52 million deal, which is an AAV of $17.3 million, the largest ever for a reliever.

That’s rub with agents.

Clubs are heeding the lessons of history when it comes to megadeals for players once they are, in the words of singer John Conlee, "on the back side of 30, the short side of time.”

Long gone are the days when a 39-year-old Barry Bonds could hit .362 with 45 home runs and an all-time record 232 walks, as he did for the 2004 Giants in a fourth straight MVP season. That same season, a 41-year-old Roger Clemens went 18-4, 2.98 in 33 starts for the Astros while winning his seventh Cy Young Award.

Last season, players age 35 and older hit .237/.310/.395 in 9,605 plate appearances, which was about 14 percent below league average. In 2004, that same sample of players batted 23,734 times and hit a league-average .264/.345/.434.

A similar trend holds for pitchers. Last year, those 35 and older logged 2,128 innings, which was roughly 40 percent of the 5,421 innings they compiled in 2004. n

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