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Baseball’s free agent problem and Charlie Blackmon’s future with the Rockies

The current free agent problem is made for a player like Blackmon

Baseball has a problem. The lack of free agent signings this offseason is merely a symptom of something systemic. It’s not the disease. Tanking is viewed by fans and front offices alike as an acceptable long-term competitive strategy. Doing so hurts current competitive balance while also dis-incentivizing spending money in free agency. The MLBPA has slowly but surely weakened since the 1994 strike, which has led the union to concede pay for young players in favor of other amenities, under the assumption of a later payday in free agency. At the same time, owners are using the luxury tax threshold as an excuse to withhold those paydays. It’s even become common for fans to view the game from the perspective of the front office and giving praise to the savvy acquisition of young cost-controlled players and maximizing dollar value (even this article is sort of an example of that).

Jeff Passan lays all of this out in an excellent article for Yahoo! Sports. The most critical point Passan makes is that this offseason isn’t a blip that emerged out of nowhere in November, 2017 that will go away before the big free agent class of 2018 hits. It’s a problem long in the making, and there’s going to be a reckoning sooner or later.

The Rockies player most immediately affected by the state of things is Charlie Blackmon. Not long ago it looked like Blackmon was headed for a huge payday in free agency once he hits the market after the 2018 offseason. The 31-year-old had an MVP-caliber season in 2017, and his year-to-year improvements stand as a testament to his work ethic as much as his talent. There didn’t seem to be much standing in the way between Blackmon and a Jayson Werth-like contract. Werth also entered free agency after his age 31-season, and the Nationals signed him to a seven-year contract worth $126 million. Maybe Blackmon would get fewer years, and maybe the dollars wouldn’t match, but he was on his way to getting paid.

That’s far from a sure thing now. The problem is going to be especially hard on a player like Blackmon, who didn’t play his first full season until he was 27. Now, he’ll hit free agency past his prime, and he and his agent will try to entertain teams who are either not trying to win and unwilling to pay up for an outfielder on the wrong side of 30 or teams who’d much rather rely on younger and cheaper options. One anonymous league official told Passan: “Of course it doesn’t make sense. We pay you the minimum for three years and arbitration for three or four years, and then you get paid more in free agency for your decline?”

There’s no scenario in which Blackmon doesn’t get the short end of the stick. He’s not unique in that regard. Similarly, the Rockies aren’t unique in their increasingly advantageous position regarding Blackmon. And one way they can take advantage of that position is offering Blackmon a below market extension.

Before this offseason began to unfold, it didn’t seem like an extension made much sense. On the one hand, Blackmon wrapped up an excellent season in which he established himself as a premier outfielder. If I were him, I wouldn’t have accepted anything less than six years and $120 million as an extension, and I wouldn’t have done that because free agency was the beacon to get at least that and maybe more. On the other hand, if I were the Rockies I would have been extremely hesitant to make an offer like that.

Now, in late January, things look different. That type of extension offer was never going to come Blackmon, and it doesn’t look like it’ll be coming his way in free agency either. The Rockies could now have a brief window before free agency begins to take advantage of the system and extend Blackmon for something that benefits the team, though not necessarily Blackmon.

The Lorenzo Cain contract could be a decent proxy. He just signed with the Brewers for five years and $80 million. After JD Martinez, Cain was the best outfielder on the market this year. He’s similar to Blackmon in that he excels in one part of the game and is average to slightly above in another part. While Blackmon is an excellent hitter and a good outfielder, Cain is an excellent outfielder and a good hitter. Cain’s the same age now as Blackmon will be when he’s a free agent next year.

An extension for three or four years in the range of $20-25 million a year could be hugely beneficial to the Rockies and potentially enticing to Blackmon (as long as his expectations weren’t as Werth-ian as mine were). He’d be ready to hit free agency again at around age 35, which is most definitely worse for him. Although that’d also be around the time the current CBA expires so he might just be on strike anyhow.

If there’s a benefit to Blackmon in any of this, it’s that he wouldn’t be stuck in free agent purgatory next offseason. Otherwise, it’s a bad outcome of a bad situation and another symptom of baseball’s systemic problem. Without an extension, Blackmon will be a 32-year-old outfielder with a qualifying offer attached. He may spend January 2019 wondering if he’ll be at Spring Training with a team or one organized for him and other frozen-out free agents.