Column: Lance Lynn’s smaller contract underscores big questions for baseball

By Derrick Goold - St. Louis Post-Dispatch

JUPITER, Fla. — The Cardinals, in their effort to score a draft pick and not sign a player, offered Lance Lynn a better contract than he finalized Monday.

Way back before baseball’s hot stove got stuck in a meat locker, the Cardinals extended a one-year, $17.4-million offer to their former starter. It was largely ceremonial. Paperwork. The Cardinals had to make the qualifying offer to be eligible to receive a draft pick when Lynn signed elsewhere, and Lynn had to dutifully reject the qualifying offer to reach free agency, as he had earned with six years in the majors. Done. And done. Both sides were pleased.

Neither saw what was coming.

Lynn officially signed with the Twins, agreeing to a one-year, $12-million contract that offers no security beyond the coming year and less money than he was guaranteed by the Cardinals if he had just accepted the qualifying offer. A year ago, Lynn, the Cardinals and others around him believed the durable right-hander could be shooting for a contract in the neighborhood of $100 million. But in a market that curiously froze out free agents, Lynn was left to take a deal that wasn’t even the best one offered.

And he was not alone.

Also this past week Mike Moustakas, who had received a qualifying offer of $17.4 million from KC, took $11 million less — and he signed with the same team that made the qualifying offer.

“We haven’t had a conversation with the player or with the agent about what the experience was,” union chief Tony Clark said Saturday when I asked about the precedent of players taking less than qualifying offers. “We understand that in every offseason there are going to be a number of decisions made, there may be opportunities that present themselves, there may not be opportunities that present themselves.”

Sure, but opportunities become trends, and trends break a market.

“We’ll have to see,” Clark continued. “We’re 15 months in and we’re seeing things that we haven’t seen before or haven’t seen in some time. We’ll have to see whether or not it is the new norm, rather than the exception. (If it becomes the norm) that means a certain set of issues will arise and are going to need to be addressed. If it’s the exception that still suggests there are some things that need to be addressed in the near term, rather than the long term. So we’re going to have to see.”

The reasons for the odd offseason and the vice clamps it put on Lynn’s earning potential are myriad. There are, of course, whispers of collusion, and there’s probably something to that, though not in any coordinated effort by owners. The collusion is more empirical than talk.

It’s math.

As teams have all now embraced more analytical approaches to evaluating players and the Hedge Fund Age officially on us, decisions are “data-driven,” as Cardinals executives say. That means players are being judged for the VALUE of their production not just the AMOUNT of their production.

An example: Teams are not always after the best pitcher available (Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, etc.), but all chasing the best-value pitcher (Tyler Chatwood, Miles Mikolas). It wasn’t all that long ago that Jordan Zimmermann, a right-hander with a 20.2 career WAR and a 118 ERA+ signed a five-year, $110-million contract. This winter, due in part to how his peripheral stats are judged and how teams see better “value” from a collection of young players, Lynn, a 14.9 WAR pitcher with a career 114 ERA+, gets $12 million.

Consider that the Cincinnati Reds locked in Homer Bailey for a six-year, $105-million extension to buy out his free-agent years, while Lynn wanted to get to his. Bailey hasn’t made 20 starts in a season since 2014, and he’s only had one season with a WAR of 3.2. Lynn, the superior pitcher, has three consecutive seasons with a 3.1 WAR or better.

Bailey will make $21 million in 2018.

If all teams now see players through these same statistical prisms then they don’t need to talk about collusion, the computers are putting them there. The data drives them to it.

Some of the other factors are teams pushing to sign players younger and to longer-term deals, like the Cardinals recently did with Paul DeJong. Especially after seeing this past winter’s chill, players can choose that security when offered over potential windfalls later that, as in Lynn’s case, didn’t arrive.

Teams also value draft picks (overvalue?) and the money attached to those picks because of what the spending limits have brought to the draft. The added purse means the ability to spend more later in the draft, as in upside 11th-round picks.

And then there is tanking.

That’s the one Clark mentioned.

“When we have what we believe is upwards of a third of the league that doesn’t seem to be as interested in being the last team standing,” he said. “It just begs a number of questions to what makes sense now and moving forward in that regard. When you have players out there that can undoubtedly help teams win, the questions increase. When there is public banter out there from the club suggesting they’re not as interested in being the last team standing. I think all of that is a concern for any of us connected to the game.”

Where the correction comes is uncertain.

This coming winter will feature a free agent class for the ages, one that will include Bryce Harper and Manny Machado and could also feature Clayton Kershaw, not to mention Dallas Keuchel and Josh Donaldson. Here there be monsters. And monster paydays.

But if Clark’s estimate is right and only a third of the teams — well, a third plus one considering the Philadelphia Phillies are now players, big time — are interested in contending then the market for even these free agents will shrink. If a market shrinks, bidding does, too. It likely won’t cost the high-end talents their deals, but there won’t be the trickle-down to other free agents.

With four more years to go in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, there will be plenty of time to study what has happened and what happens next. I asked Clark if there could be outside factors that influence change — vanishing crowds for the tanking teams, low TV ratings, something that would suggest that bowing out of the market would cost a team at home.

“It is a concern,” Clark said. “We don’t know what is going to happen this year. It is definitely a concern that we should all pay attention to because we’re all connected to the industry and have the best interest of the industry at heart. I believe those type of questions and those kind of concerns — whether it’s the players who want to play against the best or the fans who expect to come to the ballpark and see the best — are questions about whether or not that’s actually happening. That’s a concern. How it manifests itself remains to be seen. But how it may manifest itself is undoubtedly a concern.”

At least once in the past week or so, Lynn’s representative reached out to the Cardinals to see if there was any interest in a reunion.

There wasn’t.

Moustakas got his reunion. He signed a one-year, $6.5-million deal with the Royals, the same team that just a few months earlier had tabled him a one-year, $17.4-million contract. All he had to do was say yes. Instead he waited, and he’ll make less this coming year than Jedd Gyorko ($9 million), the player the Cardinals felt gave them better performance at third, better depth in the lineup, and better value. One season after Milwaukee brings Eric Thames back from Korea for a three-year, $16-million deal, Moose goes home again for far less.

Not like he had much of a choice.

Moustakas told USA Today that no other team made an offer. Interest, sure. But the Royals were the only team that made him an offer. Moustakas’ agent, Scott Boras, told the paper that “the system failed” his client and “players have been given notice.” Other free agents have described a similar experience this offseason. The Twins have taken advantage, acquiring Logan Morrison and now Lynn during spring training.

“We’re aware where phones aren’t ringing,” Clark said Saturday as he left Cardinals’ camp, the 15th and final Florida stop on his tour. “A vast majority of phones haven’t rung. It begs the question as to why.”

No calls.

Plenty of messages.


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By Derrick Goold

St. Louis Post-Dispatch