There is now rampant speculation that the twin prime-age free agents who have the so-called Hot Stove League in palpitations—the two are outfielder Bryce Harper (L) and shortstop Manny Machado (R), both 26, burgeoning superstars, and, in the estimation of many including me, assholes—will not sign contracts until February. I find this difficult to believe, since it would be jaw-droppingly stupid (and unethical), but I hope hope hope that it happens, because the ethics lessons the consequences might teach couldl be momentous.
Both young men are reportedly seeking contracts in the range of ten years at 30+ million dollars a year. Both have player agents who are telling them such exorbitant goals are reasonable. Machado has already made about 34 million dollars in his still-brief Major League career. Harper had made almost 48 million. Both are in a position in which they could pick out the city and team they want to live in and play with, and say to their agents, “This is where I want to be. Make the best deal you can, and make it happen.” That is what a rational person would do, and indeed, that is what some players, not players with the potential earning power of these two but ones with more brains than Harper and Machado have between them, have done, though rarely.
It is important to note that unless these guys have developed an addiction to eating diamonds or something similarly extravagant, they don’t need to work another day in their lives now. What is their motivation to be paid more than a third of a billion dollars over the next decade, other than having avaricious, unethical agents steering them in that direction? Ego? Insanity? Stupidity? Harper or Machado could call up any one of the 30 MLB teams, ask, “What can you pay me for the next five years?” and have a contract for at least $100,000,000 dollars within 25 hours. How much different will their lives be with those “low-ball” contracts than if they received the longer, richer ones they covet? Not different at all, and quite possibly better.
The kind of contracts Harper and Machado are seeking will cripple any ball team’s ability to improve itself. The closest comparisons to the kind of contracts Harper and Machado want are currently anvils around the metaphorical necks of the Detroit Tigers, the Baltimore Orioles and the California Angels. All three are hobbled by rich long-term commitments they made to then bona fide sluggers in or near their primes (respectively, Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis and Albert Pujols) and all three have become old, fragile, or useless while being guaranteed over 20 million dollars a year for multiple seasons reaching far into the future. All players want to play with winners, but there is a limit to what a single player can demand from a club and still make it possible for that team to thrive. The top team salary (the Boston Red Sox) is about $232 million, being paid to its 40 man roster. Most teams have far fewer resources. Having a single $30 million contract on the books means that more than 10% of the team’s salary is taken up by a single player out of 40, and that can be a serious handicap—especially as the premium player declines, or is injured. The last half of such a contract is not just a gamble, but a bad gamble. Almost all players start declining after 30. Harper and Machado are asking to be paid for ten years on the basis of what they can only be reasonably relied upon to provide for four.
The decision to delay signing until February, if true, is an incredibly selfish move. Many older free agents are waiting to see what the market is, and Harper and Machado will define the market. Many teams may be delaying signing less expensive players until they know if they can sign one of the two Big Enchiladas, and the longer a lesser free agent goes without signing, the greater the likelihood that he will have to sign a shorter, less lucrative, or, as happened to many players last year, no contract at all. Meanwhile, teams want to know what their roster is before Spring Training. Late decisions by Harper and Machado will hurt several teams as well. The delayed decisions by these two players are effecting careers, lives, families and communities, and all so these guys can make more money than they can even comprehend, and tie themselves to contracts that will constrict their freedom and life choices as much as they will expand them.
I hope the market teaches these two players and their greedy agents a lesson, what George Will calls “condign justice.” I hope that when they get to February, they see their demand falling, and find themselves being blamed by other players for the fact that they can’t find employment. I hope the two are forced to sign “cheap” contracts—you know, for a paltry 20 million a year or so, for less than five years with teams and cities where they would rather not be. I hope Manny and Bryce fire their agents. Then I hope even those contracts turn out to be bad ones for the teams who offered them.
Maybe then future free agents who enter the markets as multi-millionaires will start thinking about values, priorities, their profession and human beings rather than meaningless numbers on a contract.
Oh, who am I kidding?