With Adam Jones and Martin Maldonado agreeing to one-year deals, the last notable players appear to have finally freed their feet from the stagnant swamp of the offseason. Both stand as examples of a dystopic free agency environment, though the latter best encapsulates the new reality as it applies to both the Cubs and MLB as a whole.
We’ve known since the end of October that the Cubs weren’t going to be adding much to the payroll this winter. Wait, let me back that up and clarify it. It had been reported since late October or early November that the Cubs weren’t going to be big spenders, but it took quite a while for that truth to fully sink in.
Theo Epstein said the Cubs were broken, Tom Ricketts said they were broke. The roster had needs in the bullpen and behind the plate, but the front office needed to cobble things together on a budget that didn’t include space for luxuries. Well, unless you count the $20 million option on Cole Hamels, who is neither a reliever nor a catcher.
Hamels is a reliable starter who solidifies a rotation that, while long in the tooth, is among the best in the league. And let’s not forget that the Cubs “had” to trade Drew Smyly to the Rangers to save $5 million on Hamels’ option. Outside of that, their big moves were $5 million guaranteed to Daniel Descalso and a reworked deal for Brad Brach that guarantees only $3 million (with some easy incentives, but still).
And though they picked up Francisco Arcia on a minor league deal in January, the Cubs really didn’t do much when it came to finding a new backup for Willson Contreras. Part of that is because they’re comfortable with Victor Caratini, at least for now. But the biggest reason is that they simply didn’t have the combination of money and opportunity.
Okay, they have the money in a macro sense, there just wasn’t enough allocated to the baseball operations budget to allow Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer to make more moves. They had reportedly offered Brian McCann a $2 million deal, which he turned down in order to return to Atlanta. The Cubs also showed interest in Maldonado, who initially preferred the opportunity to get more everyday playing time along with more money.
And that’s where things start to get funky. Maldonado will get regular starts behind the plate in Kansas City, but he’ll do it for a mediocre team at perhaps a quarter of the salary he could have earned with a title contender. He signed for one-year and $2.5 million (incentives could push it to $3.9M) with the Royals, which seemed inevitable following the loss of Salvador Perez to a torn UCL.
That got some Cubs fans, present company included, a little riled up since even a tight budget should have had that kind of room for a Gold Glove-caliber backstop. But when you play a protracted game of chicken, any number of things can happen to make one of the opposing parties flinch. The Cubs have been looking for catching help, but they had to wait out the market and hope for a price drop to make it work.
Maldonado, on the other hand, was holding out for a bigger deal on the advice of his former agent. The 32-year-old catcher hired Scott Boras last year in hopes of cashing in on what he probably figured would be the last, biggest deal of his career. Instead, he ended up turning down a two-year, $12 million offer from the Astros at a time when other veteran catchers were accepting minor league offers.
With few options and no chance to recoup what he’d already lost, Maldonado fired Boras and hired Dan Lozano. The Royals deal came days later. What’s really interesting here is that Boras and Lozano were the agents at the forefront of the massive free agent courtships of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, respectively. Time will tell how those deals work out, but Lozano got his client signed first for a higher AAV and Boras got Harper more guaranteed money over 13 years with no opt-outs.
What’s really interesting, at least to me, is that Machado used to employ Boras before firing him to move to Lozano. Same for Alex Rodriguez and many others. Changing representation isn’t uncommon, so I’m really just cherry-picking some easy examples. But when you look at a market that is so skewed toward the top end and in which owners are using the luxury tax as a cudgel, Boras’s tactics aren’t best suited for every player’s needs.
That isn’t to say that players should jump at the first offer they get, more that they can’t all be Mighty Casey and watch good pitches go by. However, doing so may have actually increased Maldonado’s odds of ending up with the Cubs.
Because they were at least somewhat comfortable with their catching situation heading into camp, the Cubs were able to slow play the market. They also undoubtedly left themselves room in the budget for mid-season acquisitions. The Royals, on the other hand, don’t figure to compete and will likely find themselves in a position to move players on expiring contracts.
Maldonado would end up a winner in that situation, since he’d be moving to a more competitive team and would presumably see more regular playing time as Joe Maddon seeks to rest Contreras more in the second half. That’s all speculative, of course, but it feels like something the Cubs have probably plotted out as one of the myriad scenarios for the coming season.
So if you’re looking for one player who sort of exemplifies this free agency period — the sluggishness, the smaller short-term deal, the obstinate agent, teams taking a pass and waiting for the trade deadline — Maldonado is it. And if you’re not looking for that player, well, why the hell did you just waste the last 5 minutes of your day?