Big-time free agent signings are an endangered species not soon to make a comeback in a post-steroids world.
As the winter meetings completed in Nashville, fans waited with bated breath for their team to make a big splash in free agency. In truth, there are few to be made because steroid testing is doing for owners what collusion couldn’t do. It’s lowering the explosion of player salaries and creating a much more level financial arena.
There are three major factors at play: steroid testing, the luxury tax and free agency changes.
Clean players can’t
In the steroid era, from the late 1980s through 2007, players could expect to reach free agency twice in their careers, initially around 30 and then in their mid-30s as performance enhancing drugs significantly prolonged their careers.
With the advent of PED testing, however, the second free agent contract is becoming a thing of the past. Its elimination, coupled with the “luxury tax” and loss of draft picks, has driven salaries down and encourages small and mid-market teams to sign their players before they get to free agency.
Teams which didn’t react to the changing climate see their rosters littered with apocalyptic contracts like the Yankees, who have over $300 million tied up over the next five years in the aging Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira.
Ben Cherington and the Red Sox have done a good job of cleaning out the same mistakes that his predecessor Theo Epstein made.
Look at the journey of a 20-year-old drafted out of college. On average, it takes a player four years to make the major leagues. While in the minor leagues they will make an average of just $1,500 per month.
If he makes the majors at 24, for the first three seasons he will make the minimum of $480,000. At 27, still under club control, he becomes eligible for salary arbitration for the next three years, where his salary will jump signficantly.