As it turns out, owners haven't slammed shut all of the financial spigots that run to the players. It just depends on which players.
Bryce Harper, 26, set a record Thursday for the largest contract ever awarded to a free agent in professional sports, landing with the Philadelphia Phillies for a reported $330 million over 13 years. That's a heck of a lot of cheesesteaks.
Manny Machado had set a record for the largest contract ever awarded a free agent just nine days earlier, signing with the San Diego Padres for $300 million over 10 years. That's a heck of a lot of fish tacos.
Nolan Arenado set a record for the highest average annual salary for a position player with his Colorado sandwich deal—one year away from free agency, he re-signed with the Rockies on Tuesday for eight years and $260 million with an average annual value of $32.5 million—between the Machado and Harper agreements. That surpasses the $31 million Detroit's Miguel Cabrera will earn annually through 2023.
Harper, Machado, Arenado, three rich—and patient—dudes. Each waited well into spring training to get what they thought they were worth.
Since he wasn't a free agent, Arenado was on a different program. But for Harper and Machado, whose momentum toward this winter had been building and building for the past few seasons, each had to negotiate into overtime to get the deals they sought.
However long it took, the end result was, unquestionably, a big win for the players, who have been growing increasingly agitated over the past two free-agent freeze-out winters.
But no matter how many zeroes are attached to these contracts, call this one battle won while the overall war still rages.
"The volume of good players out there not getting signed is disappointing," Houston starter Gerrit Cole told B/R at Astros camp last week after the Machado contract had dropped but before Harper and Arenado signed. "We still have time left; these guys can sign whenever they want. But I feel like they know what their value is, and they're not receiving anywhere close to what they think they should bring."
There are more than 30 free agents still outside spring training camps looking in, including World Series champions and All-Stars like closer Craig Kimbrel and starter Dallas Keuchel, and outfielders Adam Jones, Austin Jackson, Carlos Gonzalez, Jose Bautista and catcher Martin Maldonado.
The common denominator is that each of the aforementioned players' ages begin with a three. As the analytics movement has set up shop in the baseball operations offices of all 30 clubs, players are being evaluated in a dramatically different way than they were even just a few years ago. Executives are studying players through the prism of WAR and other advanced analytics, which show deterioration in production once a player crosses the threshold of 30.
This new breed of executives is conservative and loathe to bet too highly on future performance. Mostly, the days of emotional decisions made by general managers looking to win goodwill from a city's rabid fanbase by overspending to lure a marquee player are relics.
This has left players scratching and clawing for every last scrap during a time of their careers that once was viewed as the reward for years of making minor league nickels followed by being "underpaid"—relatively speaking—while under club control for the first six years of their MLB careers.
"Players are feeling it for our brothers out there who are just getting hosed," Cole said. "I think that a lot of guys are really pissed off. I don't certainly want to speak for everybody, but we continue to grow more and more unified by the day and more informed by the day."
While the players are thrilled to see Harper, Arenado and Machado get theirs, they remain wary and mostly view that trio as exceptions. As one person close to the players union texted on Thursday, everybody knew those three guys would get paid, but there are still too many major leaguers without jobs or signed to one-year deals, club-friendly pacts or minor league contracts.
The union still sees too many teams collecting revenue-sharing money without making a strong effort to win at the major league level in a game that, for the sake of its integrity, demands full effort from its players.
"That's certainly what the club demands of you every time we walk in here," Cole said. "I think the players are asking, Are they doing the same? And it's not just doing right by the players—it's doing right by the fanbase, too."
In Philadelphia, fans clearly favored Harper over Machado, and the adrenaline was at such a level that in January when Vegas Gambling Steam tweeted that the club and Harper had agreed to a multiyear deal, the Phillies were besieged by calls the next day and sold several season-ticket packages based on what turned out to be an erroneous report.
"Ultimately, it is about more than [a few players]; it's the big picture," St. Louis Cardinals reliever Andrew Miller, an MLB Players Association representative, said the other day in Jupiter, Florida. "And even guys getting deals that they're happy with, the timing of it, in the past it used to be maybe a couple of guys played the long game [in negotiations], but now it seems like guys have no choice.
"The stories we hear when guys show up to camp is that they had no offers. Teams said they'd check in, but they're really not getting a firm offer or numbers exchanged until camp opens, and that's a problem. Or, it's at least new to us."
Jones, the former Baltimore center fielder, is consistently brought up this winter as an example of a true pro who should still have a place in the game. A 13-year veteran with postseason experience, the 33-year-old could be a final piece on a team that's hoping to contend, or he could be a veteran mentor on a rebuilding club. Jones helped lead Team USA to its first World Baseball Classic championship in 2017, playing the role of goodwill ambassador in an event that many other players want no part of (Angels outfielder Mike Trout, for example, has never participated).
And in a game in which African American representation is dwindling to embarrassing levels—only 7.8 percent of the game's players were black last season—Jones' absence is big.
And yet, nothing. That's largely, it is assumed, because his offensive WAR dropped to 2.6 last summer from 3.8 in 2017 (according to the Baseball Reference model) and his defensive WAR dropped to minus-2.3 from minus-0.8.
Clearly, his best days are behind him, and if and when he does play again, he should be moved from center field to a corner outfield spot. Still…
"People want to watch Adam Jones play," Cole said. "I still want to watch Adam Jones play.
"When I talk to [players from] teams that have won the World Series, this team [the Astros], my brother-in-law's team [shortstop Brandon Crawford's Giants], the common theme is how well they played together, how smartly they played together. And, sure, you need to have talent. But at end of the day, all teams who get to the playoffs have talent. What puts you over edge is those intangibles that aren't being valued analytically."
In adding Harper, the Phillies rounded out one impressive winter that may well have made them NL East favorites going into 2019. Already, they'd added J.T. Realmuto, who may be the game's premier catcher, shortstop Jean Segura, outfielder Andrew McCutchen and closer David Robertson.
The Padres, with a woefully inexperienced rotation, don't appear ready to win yet, but adding Machado was a statement, and when rising phenoms such as Fernando Tatis Jr., Logan Allen and MacKenzie Gore arrive, San Diego should reap some rewards on its whopping investment.
And Arenado already was a franchise player in Colorado who now will stay put and, in all likelihood, go into the Hall of Fame one day wearing the Rockies logo on his cap.
As for the rest: Stay tuned.
"There's a lot of different angles we have to be concerned with," Miller said after Machado signed but before Harper did. "The work-stoppage stuff has been bandied about a little bit, but, ultimately, that's bad for all of us. We all lose in that situation. And you're talking somebody's willing to make a lot of sacrifices in order to make the future better down the road. You're talking we all don't benefit immediately when something happens.
"The owners lose. The players lose. You're fighting for bigger-picture items. We have a long time until we get there, and hopefully we can sort it out."
Thankfully the current CBA runs until 2021, so there's no immediate need to panic. But for now, Miller noted, things aren't functioning the way they're supposed to, "and there's a lot of red flags."
Not as many as there could have been had Harper and Machado not reached the predicted stratospheric economic heights. But enough to bear watching even in the midst of the suddenly flowing financial spigots of these past 10 days.
Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.