Oh, the names that could have been out there on the free-agent market.

Sure, Robinson Cano is pretty great. Ditto Jacoby Ellsbury. Shin-Soo Choo’s on-base prowess makes one swoon. Before he was picked up by the New York Yankees, Brian McCann stood out as a very rare breed of free agent: an elite offensive and defensive catcher.

But after these guys, this winter’s position-player market is sorely lacking in overall talent and, even worse, youthful talent. Things are even worse on the pitching market. When Matt Garza, Ervin Santana, Ricky Nolasco and Ubaldo Jimenez are the best there is? Just, no.

You know who could have been out there for the taking? According to MLBTradeRumors.com, how about Joey Votto, Ryan Braun, Justin Upton, Adam Jones, Alex Gordon, Ben Zobrist, Carlos Gomez, Billy Butler, Yovani Gallardo and Johnny Cueto. Another name for the pile is Adam Wainwright, who would have been by far the most attractive starter on the market had he not…

Well, had he not done what all the rest did: signed an extension. If you were looking to know what’s responsible for the shallowness of this year’s free-agent market, there you go.

Better get used to it. These things aren’t going away, and the nature of free agency will continue to evolve as a result.

Why aren’t these things going away?

It’s simple. Players want to get paid what they’re worth, and most will gladly take it from whichever team can offer it. Free agency used to be the best place for players to meet these teams, but that’s no longer the case in the Age of the Monster Contract Extension.

A search on MLBTradeRumors.com returns 25 contract extensions that have been worth at least $100 million. And of those 25, 18 have been signed since the beginning of 2010.

If we take a look at those 18 with an emphasis on the ages of the seasons the players signed away, we get this:

Beyond considerable talent, what the highlighted guys have in common is that they agreed to give up those oh-so-precious prime free agent years of a player’s late-20s and early-30s when they signed on the dotted line.

Not pictured, however, are the extensions some of the players inked before they signed their big extensions. Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman, Joey Votto, Cole Hamels, Evan Longoria, David Wright, Justin Verlander and Dustin Pedroia are all dual-extension guys.

And yeah, some of the highlighted guys are too, namely Troy Tulowitzki, Matt Cain, Felix Hernandez and Elvis Andrus.

There are only two players in the table who don’t fit into the general trend at play. One is Howard, as the three-year, $54 million extension that preceded his $125 million extension began in his age-29 season. Among the other dual-extension players, Votto‘s and Verlander’s first extensions started the latest at age-27.

Then there’s CC Sabathia. The five-year, $122 million extension he signed with the New York Yankees in 2011 prolonged a free-agent contract, one that he was about to opt out of

Howard and Sabathia make two players who didn’t sign big-money extensions rather than offer their prime years to the free-agent market. Everyone else did. That’s 16 out of 18, and that’s remarkable.

Want to know how many $100 million free-agent contracts have been signed since 2010? According to MLBTradeRumors.com: only nine. That’s half as many $100 million extensions that have been handed out in that span, and three fewer than had ever been handed out before.

That’s how it is nowadays. Free agency isn’t where all the money is anymore. There’s plenty of it in extensions, and they appeal to both players and teams. Players get paid while the getting’s good, and teams get to keep the players who have turned into stars on their watch.

For teams, it’s not the desire to do so that’s new. It’s the ability.

There are people who like to talk about how baseball is dying. Because we’ve actually been paying attention, you, I and all baseball fans know better. Major League Baseball is currently enjoying a period of extraordinary success.

According to MLB.com, attendance has never been better than it’s been in the last 10 seasons. And according to Maury Brown of BizofBaseball.comMLB‘s revenues for 2012 amounted to $7.5 billion. The league’s 2013 revenues haven’t been reported yet, but last year’s trend was an upwards trend.

For MLB’s 30 clubs, there are several different avenues from which to draw cash. Some clubs have big-money local TV deals. The booming success of MLB Advanced Media has, according to Peter J. Schwartz of Bloomberg, reached a point to where it’s now worth $600 million annually. All teams have an equal share in that money.

And of course, there are the new national TV deals that go into effect in 2014. Those are worth $1.5 billion per year, which FanGraphs‘ Wendy Thurm pointed out means $25 million more per year for every team over the money they were getting from the old national TV deals.

One’s first instinct is to guess that the bubble will burst sooner or later, but it’s hard to imagine why it would be sooner rather than later.

Baseball’s enormous popularity won’t go away overnight, neither should the cash flow. While Maury Brown did bring up good reasons to believe that local TV deals are due to hit a glass ceiling, let’s face it: it’s impossible for 162 games’ worth of programming to not be valuable property in this day and age of the DVR. Elsewhere, it’s largely paid subscriptions that make MLBAM such a huge success.

In other words, who’s ready for the next round of extensions?

The soon-to-be-free-agent who comes immediately to mind is Clayton Kershaw. He only has a year between him and free agency, but it’s hard to imagine him actually getting there as long as the Dodgers are willing to go as high as $300 million for his services.

Others? How about Hanley Ramirez, Max Scherzer, Chris Davis, Matt Wieters, Justin Upton and Jason Heyward? Even Giancarlo Stanton, set to hit free agency after 2016, can’t be ruled out.

Then there are the youngsters who are next in line to join the dual-extension club. Madison Bumgarner, Derek Holland, Carlos Santana, Matt Moore, Starlin Castro, Anthony Rizzo, Chris Sale, Paul Goldschmidt and Andrew McCutchen all signed extensions before they were even arbitration-eligible. Once free agency is on the horizon, any one of them could find himself staring at an extension offer worth fair market value.

Then you have the super-duper pre-arb guys who will be needing extension attention before long. Mike Trout is bound to get best-player-in-baseball money soon enough. And how does a 12-year deal for Bryce Harper sound?

The two of them are undeniably big drops in MLB’s bucket of supremely talented youngsters, but also in there are Matt Harvey (assuming he gets healthy), Jose Fernandez, Manny Machado, Andrelton Simmons, Starling Marte and Jean Segura.

Are all of the aforementioned players going to sign extensions? That would be something else, but, well, no. Of course not.

The cash is out there, but not every team has a bottomless pit of the stuff. Really good players are going to continue to find their way to the open market by circumstance. Others will continue to find their way there thanks to a good, old-fashioned desire to test the free-agent waters.

But what has become of free agency in the last couple of years is bound to continue to be the norm. There will be a small collection of bona-fide stars at the top each winter, but extensions will continue to make sure these collections stay small.

There will be side effects. Some of those are already taking shape. 

Take, for example, the willingness to throw piles of cash at unproven players with nothing more than star potential. The obvious targets are going to be players coming from outside MLB’s ranks.

Big money was thrown at Daisuke Matsuzaka and Yu Darvish, both Japanese hurlers, in 2006 and 2011, respectively. That money, however, is likely to pale in comparison to the money that will be thrown at fellow Japanese hurler Masahiro Tanaka once he’s finally posted.

According to Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports, the posting fee for Tanaka could be as high as $75 million, or roughly $25 million more than the posting fees for Dice-K and Darvish. Then would come the contract, which would push the total price well over $100 million.

Players from Cuba stand to be the other big beneficiaries. Since the big investments made in Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes and Yasiel Puig have all worked out, it’s no wonder Jose Abreu got $68 million and Alex Guerrero got $28 million.

Signings such as these will always have bust potential. But you can say the same of any big signing, and the fact is that the appeal of hitting on the next great player from beyond MLB’s borders is going to be stronger than ever with great players fading from existence on the free-agent market. And if the money keeps flowing, then the luring power of MLB for players in Japan, Cuba and wherever else will certainly be pushed to new heights.

But since there are only going to be so many appealing imports out there every winter, we’re bound to see another recent trend keep up: that of big paydays for modestly talented players.

Think Edwin Jackson, a pitcher with a 98 career ERA+ through the 2012 season, getting a $50 million contract last winter. Or Angel Pagan, a player with only three full seasons under his belt through the age of 30, getting $40 million.

So far this winter, we’ve notably seen Jason Vargas, a pitcher with a 91 career ERA+, get $32 million. Carlos Ruiz, a soon-to-be 35-year-old catcher coming off a suspension-shortened season, got $26 million. Though he’s a good player, nobody saw Jhonny Peralta getting a $50 million contract.

It’s not that clubs are stupid. Whether or not X Player deserves Y Money is always a fun argument to have whenever an apparent overpay happens, but teams don’t have much of a choice. They have money to spend, needs to fill and, hey, what’s out there is what’s out there. 

The eyebrow-raising contracts for fair-to-middling players aren’t going to stop. Another thing we’re bound to see more of is something of an offshoot of that: teams handing out as many of these contracts as they can in hopes of achieving what the Boston Red Sox were able to achieve.

The Red Sox spent $100 million on Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Koji Uehara last winter. The total cost would have been well over $100 million if Napoli‘s three-year, $39 million agreement hadn’t been taken off the table thanks to his hip defect.

It seemed at the time that the Red Sox were paying way too much for players who could only help so much. But these many months later, we know that they paid big bucks for pieces that complemented what was already a solid core of talent. Doing so had a huge hand in them winning the World Series and, thus, looks like an idea worth copy-catting.

David Wright is on record saying he hopes his New York Mets give the Red Sox model a try.

“It seemed like it worked for Boston last year,” the third baseman told Newsday. “If you can get three or four—maybe not those marquee free agents—but three or four guys that are very good, solid, players I think it helps us fill more holes. And ultimately we become a better team because of it.”

Joel Sherman of the New York Post doesn’t think Boston’s model is going to work for anyone else. He may be right. But other organizations are surely going to try it, and the model certainly is appropriate for what free agency has been turned into. With a shortage of star players to throw big money at, spreading money around over several solid pieces is going to be the next-best thing for plenty of teams.

However, it’s the deeper-pocketed teams that are bound to be the most aggressive in pursuing the Boston model. Though no team is completely broke these days thanks to the various streams of money that exist, spending, say, $100 million on a handful of complementary players just isn’t practical for MLB’s shallower-pocketed teams.

So they’ll have to do what they always do: dig up bargains any way they can.

There’s the Moneyball way to do that, which is to target undervalued players. Whereas teams have seen Bartolo Colon as an ancient pitcher with a sketchy past, the Oakland A’s have benefited from seeing him as a strike-throwing innings-eater. Whereas other teams saw James Loney as an afterthought, the Tampa Bay Rays benefited from seeing him as a quality hitter who could play a mean first base.

Then there’s the reclamation project avenue. The Pittsburgh Pirates benefited from signing Francisco Liriano to a low-risk deal and remaking him into an ace pitcher. The Cleveland Indians scored with Scott Kazmir. A couple years ago, the A’s scored with Brandon McCarthy.

What will be interesting is if shallower-pocketed teams develop ways to turn scoring big on small investments into an exact science. Rather than dwelling on the Red Sox model, deeper-pocketed teams could be more and more inclined to try and get bang for their buck by gathering as many potential bargains and reclamation projects as they can and going from there. 

Regardless of how it’s done, getting bang for one’s buck in free agency will be the name of the game for all teams like never before. There will be flashes of the old days when whatever established stars there are on the market get what they have coming, but only flashes.

Those old days, I’m afraid, have run their course.


Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com. Extension data courtesy of MLBTradeRumors.com and Baseball Prospectus.


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