With the World Series ending, players are now eligible to file for free agency. They have fifteen days to do so following the last game of the season, so the filing period will end November 12th. So, for the next couple of weeks, you’re going to see headlines of non-news stories such as “Alfonso Soriano files for free agency.” Of course, this is about as newsworthy as “Alfonso Soriano rises from bed and ponders navel.” Players who are eligible for free agency almost always file. They want to test their market value, and in most cases, if they wanted to stay with (or were wanted by) their original team, they’d have already signed an extension.
This is also the period where we begin to hear the rumors of what players are asking for, as teams begin to get a feel for what a player thinks their value should be. A lot of the early numbers are going to be bogus; Alfonso Soriano’s not going to get $18 million a year, but it’s in his agents best interest to get that number out there now as they attempt to get him as much money as humanly possible.
One of the other annual traditions of the beginning of the free agent passage is that people start hauling out the old incorrect cliche that a player “is worth what the market will bear.” In an efficient economic model, this is generally true, but MLB’s salary structure isn’t anything like an efficient economic model, and it’s not supposed to be. Because of the existance of a massive player pool whose salaries aren’t determined by a free market, a rationale floor is created for the value of a certain production level. If a few general managers get together and decide that a 4 win player like Alfonso Soriano is worth $16 million per season, that doesn’t establish his actual value – it establishes that they suck at their jobs.
In general, the free agent market in the last few years has been significantly overheated, as teams have failed to hold a rationale line on market valued salaries, instead chasing after pennants by throwing good money after bad. It’s going to happen again this winter, and this might be the ugliest winter yet in terms of amazingly bad contracts being handed out to mediocre players.
When Randy Wolf starts signing for $30 million over three years, the correct response is not that the Mariners are just going to have to buck it up and get in the game if they want to contend, but instead, a well run organization would see their competitors wasting money and look for values elsewhere. There will be values on the trade market. There are values to be found in minor league free agency. There are often values in the low-end of the free agent pool.
If someone offers Jason Schmidt more than 3 years, $30 million (and they will, by a long shot), the Mariners need to have the stones to walk away. It’s not fear, it’s not a lack of commitment to winning, and it’s not an inability to read the market. Free Agency is a wildly inefficient market and, in general, a terrible way to build a roster. The Mariners would do well to let other teams spend themselves into oblivion. This is the worst free agent crop in recent memory, and it comes at a time when teams are flush with cash.
If the Mariners didn’t sign one free agent this offseason, I wouldn’t cry. There are other ways to build a roster. Better ways.