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In the new analytical world of baseball, big-time free agent spending appeared to be, at the least, in a slowdown, and at the most, doomed. But one old-time axiom still holds: stars sell.
This offseason not only did Bryce Harper and Manny Machado land record-breaking deals (with the Phillies and Padres, respectively), but fellow superstars Mike Trout (Angels) and Nolan Arenado (Rockies) were also locked up in long-term contract extensions by their clubs.
In a team sport like baseball, it pays to diversify the player portfolio. Putting big money into a free agent — usually entering his 30s — is a big risk. In recent years, just below half of these deals are worth it to the club when they are all done. It’s not just the money, it’s the opportunity cost of keeping an aging player on the field, and occupying a roster spot.
Harper, Machado and Trout, of course, are a different type of investment. All three debuted in the Majors as teenagers, are still in their mid-20s and are all big-time producers. Trout’s first year after hitting the free agent market would have been his age 29 season, but he, with arguably the greatest start in the history of the sport, warrants special consideration.
Besides getting the player, though, each club gets a franchise star. Throughout the history of the game, Major League clubs have had star players to carry their brand, and fan loyalty. Even in the age of the analytical GM, not every player is an asset to hold or flip. A 10- or 13-year contract to a player in his mid-20s is a long-term deal with the fans, and the local TV and radio product. In a world of shifting attention and fracturing media, any sport still needs to bring in an emotional investment.
Signing a “Franchise Player” is a positive signal to the players, the fans and the media. Baseball is still a rare sport that can have its fans grow up during one player’s career, and there is a value there that matches the huge money being spent.
Brian Kenny is the host of MLB Network’s MLB Now, known as the show for the thinking fan, and is the author of Ahead of the Curve. The MLB Network Showcase game airs Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, called by Bob Costas, John Smoltz and Tom Verducci.
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