MESA, Ariz. — Has there been a change in strategy around baseball? What used to be the goal of nearly every player — earning the right to choose which team he plays for — might now be less appealing. From Nolan Arenado to Aaron Hicks, young players are beginning to see the grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side. It means signing extensions with their current teams could be the norm more than the exception.
“Of course there’s some hesitation that goes along with it [free agency],” Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant said recently.
Pitcher Kyle Hendricks added: “We’re paying attention and taking note of what’s happening. Regardless of all of that, I’ve always said I would love to be in Chicago for my whole career. I know how tough that would be in this day and age.”
The Cubs are an example of a team that has been unable to sign any of its young players. But it’s not for a lack of trying. Past discussions haven’t resulted in a single long-term deal for players such as Bryant, Hendricks, Javy Baez and Kyle Schwarber. Common thinking is players want to test the free-agent market, figuring they can’t do worse when all 30 teams can bid on them.
At least, that used to be the thinking. It still might be for stars such as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, but that leaves many others wondering about the free-agent landscape before the collective bargaining agreement expires in a little less than three years. After all, it’s March and there are plenty of players without jobs.
“We’re all watching what’s going on,” one agent for a second-tier type player said. “I wouldn’t say our strategy has changed. But it could. And it it’s different for every player.”
Union chief Tony Clark said the message from players is loud and clear: They want to see all 30 teams trying to win every year. If that were the case, the 30- to 32-year-old veteran might be more in demand.
“The value for players that can help teams win doesn’t seem to be what it should be,” Clark said last week after visiting with Cubs players. “It appears that there are a number of teams who are working toward and interested in being the last team that’s standing, and there are a number of teams that don’t appear to be quite interested in that.”
The Cubs qualify as a team that wants to win now and in the near future. Their tanking cycle took place in the early portion of the decade. Still, at the moment, they have zero players under 29 who are signed for more than one year — and they would like to change that.
“It’s no secret we’ve approached a lot of guys in that clubhouse during arbitration about multiyear deals,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “We haven’t gotten enough traction to get a deal done.”
Bryant and Arenado have a lot in common, including the position they play. The Cubs third baseman still has three seasons before free agency, so the timing isn’t as urgent for him as it was for Arenado. But even a player of his caliber is wondering what going to the free market will look like as he hits 30 years old. Perhaps that’s why he wanted to make at least one point on the subject of staying with the Cubs.
“I don’t know if I’ve made this clear before, but I’m not opposed to anything [the Cubs] have to say, anything they have to offer,” Bryant said. “Everyone is making me out, like, ‘He’s unwilling to do this.’ I’ve never said that.”
Bryant knows the narrative stems from his association with his agent, Scott Boras. Boras just took another client, Harper, to free agency, even after receiving a reported $300 million offer from the team that drafted and developed him.
“I see everything people say about Scott and stuff like that, but at the end of the day he works for me, he works for the players he represents,” Bryant said. “His opinion is not the final opinion. He knows that, too. We’ve had conversations before, and he says, ‘I’m here to do whatever you want me to do.’ It’s whatever the player wants.”
It was pointed out to Bryant that a long-term deal could provide security in case of a work stoppage, which would likely happen at about the same he’s set to become a free agent. But he rightly responded that a stoppage would be intended to fix the system. In other words, waiting for a better situation might actually be the smart way to go.
“If there is going to be a lockout or strike, it’s going to be because we want something better,” Bryant said.
In any case, Bryant might fall into that same category as Harper: the superstar who gets paid no matter the CBA. Hendricks, on the other hand, is that classic second-tier guy who will be over 30 when he’s set to become a free agent after the 2020 season.
“I don’t need all the money in the world, but I would love to be respected for what I’m going to provide,” Hendricks said. “That’s the bottom line for all players. … This game has been set up by the players before us and we have the obligation to watch out for young players coming up after us. I feel that part of it, too.”
His agency represents Arenado as well, so obviously there is a willingness to engage before free agency. But in talks with agents and players who might qualify for extensions, there is no panic setting in, at least not yet.
“I don’t see [a contract extension] in the near, foreseeable future, necessarily, but it doesn’t mean it can’t happen any day,” Hendricks said. “From what happened last year, we’re so focused, and upstairs I think they are, too, [on] the product on the field. That’s everyone’s focus. If that stuff gets taken care of, everything else will be taken care of.”
It’s true. The Cubs have seemingly put business aside to focus on what they have in front of them in 2019. A disappointing finish last season has everything, from the manager’s future on down, on hold.
“This winter we’ve been focused on the team and focused on getting back to where we were,” Hoyer said.
The one thing the recent signings — including the big free-agent stars — have proved to the players is there is plenty to go around.
“It just goes to show that the teams that you don’t expect to have the money, do,” Bryant said. “No one expected the Padres to do this, but they did. … It’s interesting to see that some of the bigger teams actually aren’t going after those guys.
“Everybody has money. We’re not stupid. We see the price of tickets, the price of memorabilia, of everything. There’s TV deals. There’s a lot of money in this game.”