Free Agent slugger Jermaine Dye (left) is among a group of free agents with impact bats that MLB clubs can currently pick up for rock-bottom prices. The only question is, what’s the hold up? Here is one theory.
In 2003, Michael Lewis wrote the book Moneyball, which followed Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and his effort to compete with small market dollars against the big market teams and their seemingly unlimited budgets. Contrary to popular belief, the basic principle of the book was not Beane’s concentration on OPS (on-base plus slugging percentages), but identifying the undervalued skill set on the market and taking advantage of it. Seems simple – pay less, get more – but the recent trend in what (and who) Major League teams are willing to pay for in the free agent market is indicative of at least one widespread belief – the steroid era is definitely over.
In the history of baseball up until the steroid era, simple longevity, and consistency of play, was enough to get you into the Hall of Fame. Cumulative statistics over a long career were more impressive than single season averages. Andre Dawson’s recent election in the Hall of Fame signals a return to this style of thinking – Dawson accumulated some impressive totals over his 21 seasons, but his 162 game average was just .279/.323/.482 with 29 home runs. The reason longevity of this kind was, and is once again, rewarded by the voters is because any normal, chemically un-enhanced human being faces a natural decline in production in their mid to upper-30s.
In the heart of the steroid era, a slugger in their mid-30s was still capable of pulling down a 3-4 year deal worth upwards of $10 million per year. These bloated contracts were part of the reason Beane started leaning more toward OPS as opposed to straight up SLG or raw HR totals. Now, showing power in your low 30s doesn’t mean you will show power mid to late-30s, and most teams look like they are banking on these veteran sluggers falling off the cliff. Most notably, Jermaine Dye (36), Johnny Damon (36), and Jim Thome (39), put up what you could call anywhere from respectable to impressive seasons last summer, but still find themselves out of a job less than a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting.
These guys are waiting around just trying to sign a Bobby Abreu-level deal, but teams still aren’t biting. We are talking about veteran, experienced sluggers that have long track records of success, so what is the hold up? Very simple – despite a Moneyball philosophy around the league – and the aging veteran is definitely the undervalued commodity these days – teams now consider these players a bigger risk, even at bargin-bin prices, than their own up-and-coming wet-behind-the-ears prospects. Whether this recent shift in free agency is a direct evidence of a specific player’s past steroid use is open for discussion, but clearly the time that MLB organizations felt comfortable giving players (not just sluggers) in their upper 30s multi-year deals is over. What does this trend say about what MLB knew, or did not know, during the steroid era as 38-year olds routinely signed two to three year deals? Draw your own conclusions, but I’m guessing they weren’t relying on Ben Gay to help a 42 year-old get back on the field after a slight hamstring strain in mid-August.