Is Dragging out Free Agency Good or Bad for Major League Baseball?

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Is Dragging out Free Agency Good or Bad for Major League Baseball?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Earth to Nelson Cruz: You still out there?

Major League Baseball's free agency isn't a set of roaring rapids. It's more of a lazy river. One that goes on. And on. And ooooonnnnn...

Is this a bad thing? A good thing? Neither?

After thinking about it, I'm going to go with door No. 3.

To my knowledge, we're not having this conversation in response to anything. There's no crotchety columnist proclaiming that MLB's drawn-out free agency stinks or rocks. We're having it just for the heck of it. Because, shucks, conversations about unique things can be fun.

And if we're comparing it to the other three major American pro sports leagues, baseball's free agency is nothing if not unique. 

It's not just a matter of how long MLB's free agency lasts, to be sure. Baseball doesn't have restricted and unrestricted free agents like the NFL, NBA and NHL. Baseball's salary cap (you know it as the luxury tax) also doesn't play as big a role as the caps in the other three leagues.

But since baseball's draggy-outy-ness is our main focus here, that's what we're going to give the ol' rundown treatment.

The NBA opens the signing period for unrestricted free agents on July 8, the NHL on July 1. Since hockey training camps open in September and basketball training camps open in October, both leagues have naturally short offseasons.

The NFL, meanwhile, has an offseason about as long as baseball's. But it holds off on starting free agency until roughly a month after the Super Bowl is played in early February. Per NFL.com, restricted free agents were given from March 12 to April 19 to sign in 2013. Unrestricted free agents were given longerMarch 12 to July 22—but right there you're still looking at a restricted window. 

Since both have short offseasons, quick free-agency periods come with the territory in the NBA and NHL. The NFL's rules establish a speedy free-agency period. 

Partially as a result of that, there's another thing the three leagues have in common: Things happen fast.

Issac Baldizon/Getty Images
This has ended up working out OK.

For example, take the Miami Heat signing LeBron James and Chris Bosh and re-signing Dwyane Wade in 2010. All three deals were done by July 10, just two days after the league's free-agency period opened.

In the NFL, consider Drew Brees and Peyton Manning. Brees signed with the New Orleans Saints in 2006 on March 15, very early on in the free-agent period. Manning signed with the Denver Broncos on March 20 in 2012, also promptly.

Because I'm not much of a hockey guy, fewer NHL examples came to mind. But even I can spend 10 minutes on Google and find that important free-agent signings like Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa and Brian Rafalski all went down on July 1, the very day the league's free-agent period opened.

In MLB, stuff like this just doesn't happen.

Baseball fans never see big-name free agents sign on the first day of free agency. Or in the first few days. Or the first week. Both teams and players want to let the market develop. Prices go up and down. Demand disappears and reappears. It's due to forces like these that the market heats up via a slow boil rather than exploding in a quick flash.

It's around January that the slow boil becomes a simmer, in which only leftovers are still floating. Among these are typically very few stars to keep the offseason rumor mill turning. 

Suffice it to say, a bit different from what goes on in NFL, NBA and NHL free agency. Those leagues get it over with. MLB invites its free agency to linger.

From a certain perspective, you can argue that "different" in this case means "bad."

Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Obligatory Kyle Lohse picture, because you know he's about to be mentioned.

One thing I would say is that baseball players generally (not always, mind you) have more leverage in free agency than football, basketball or hockey players do. The lesser role of baseball's salary cap is obviously a factor, but the way in which players can sit back and wait for what the market says they're worth rather than what their talent says they are can help inflate salaries.

For example, look at the mediocre pitchers who signed rich contracts this winter. Jason Vargas, Phil Hughes and Scott Feldman signed for a combined $86 million. That's a lot for, well, not much.

That money is coming out of owners' pockets. Owners are "Major League Baseball" more than the players. Thus it can be argued that drawn-out free agency isn't so great for the league.

In theory, you could also postulate that the way in which baseball salaries are escalated by the waiting game makes life tough for small-market teams. Maybe if free agency happened more quickly, they'd have a better chance at signing players away from rich clubs. If so, increased competitive balance!

These would probably be the big arguments against MLB's drawn-out free agency. It takes money out of the league's pockets, and it skews the board against the have-nots. Damn that drawn-out free agency!

But now behold the counterarguments.

Does MLB need to squeeze its free agency into a tighter window?

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One: Is it really such a bad thing that baseball players can take advantage of the free-agency waiting game? The result may be inflated contracts, but at last check, fans are interested in things like that. Fan interest is a good thing for a sports league to have, especially when there are no games going on.

And while things may feel painfully slow when January rolls around, that there are always one or two stars (i.e. Matt Holliday, Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder) still out there is better than nothing. And two years into the qualifying-offer system that was introduced in 2012, it looks like there are going to be more than one or two stars available whenever January rolls around from now on.

Nick Swisher, Rafael Soriano and Adam LaRoche didn't sign until January last year. Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse didn't sign until spring training. As of now, Nelson Cruz, Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew and Ervin Santana are still out there. Like Swisher, Soriano, LaRoche, Bourn and Lohse before them, all have watched their markets slowed down thanks to their ties to draft-pick compensation.

Granted, it may be torturous for them. And as Lohse can vouch, it can also lead to disappointing contracts. As far as the league should be concerned, however, free agents lasting a long time on the market means fans have reasons to keep checking MLB Trade Rumors deep into the offseason. The league should want that.

As for the competitive-balance concern, that works in theory more than it does in reality.

Maybe the concern would be valid if there were a yearly trend of the rich teams scooping up all the best players in the later stages of the offseason after intentionally pricing the poor teams out of the market. No such trend exists, nor is one similar to that likely to in a day and age when the Mariners can sign a superstar player away from the Yankees and teams like the Royals and Twins can spend good money on mediocre pitchers.

Then there's the reality that there's nothing wrong with baseball's competitive balance on the field. In the last 13 years, only the Royals and Blue Jays haven't made the playoffs. I'll also point to an article by Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated that broke down how money suddenly isn't buying success like it used to.

Part of that is because it's not as easy to buy wins on the free-agent market as it used to be. Teams are spending their money on extensions rather than free-agent contracts, and talent isn't as easy to come by in free agency as a result. No matter how drawn-out it is, any team that dominates free agency in a given winter is hardly guaranteed to do so on the field in the ensuing season. That's a good thing.

Here at the end, we acknowledge this: Free agency being drawn-out is a fact of life when it comes to baseball's offseason. If that annoys anyone, well, so be it. Anyone looking for tangible reasons for why it's bad for the league, however, has their work cut out for them.

It may be unique to baseball, but the lazy river isn't hurting anyone.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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