Baseball free agency will never unfold as it does in the N.B.A., where the players largely fit into predetermined salary slots. In baseball, the players’ union has fought to preserve a market that develops organically, with real competition for free agents and no hard caps on salaries.
In recent winters, though, the players have learned that teams will not always stretch to meet their demands. When many prominent free agents remained unsigned for months, players and agents became suspicious that collusion was stifling their earning power.
“We have the freest free agency in professional sports,” Commissioner Rob Manfred declared this summer, and the early signs from this market are proving him right. The players are winning again.
Two National League East teams invested in free agent pitchers on Wednesday, when Zack Wheeler agreed to a five-year, $118 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies and Cole Hamels signed with the Atlanta Braves for one year and $18 million. Wheeler, 29, had pitched for the Mets since 2013, and Hamels, who turns 36 this month, most recently pitched for the Chicago Cubs.
They are not the only free agents to cash in, even before the start of the sport’s winter meetings on Monday in San Diego. Infielder Mike Moustakas, who settled for one-year deals in each of the last two seasons, has a four-year, $64 million agreement with the Cincinnati Reds. Another former Milwaukee Brewer, catcher Yasmani Grandal, got the richest free agent deal in Chicago White Sox history last month: four years and $73 million.
Two left-handed relievers have also done well — Will Smith (three years, $39 million with Atlanta) and Drew Pomeranz (four years, $34 million with the Padres) — and the former Minnesota Twins starter Kyle Gibson has a three-year, $30 million deal with the Texas Rangers. Even the lowly Miami Marlins have traded for Baltimore’s Jonathan Villar, absorbing the possibility of the $10 million salary he could command in arbitration.
“You’ve got teams that said, ‘We’re going to spend money when we’re ready to spend money’ — and now they’re doing it,” said Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager who is now the morning host on MLB Network Radio. “They’re doing exactly what they said. There was no collusion, it was just that teams had a plan, and now they’re moving through the process. They’re spending money and they’re taking some chances on guys.”
The Braves have been especially aggressive after losing in a National League division series for the second season in a row. Besides signing Smith, Hamels and catcher Travis d’Arnaud (two years, $16 million) from other teams, they have committed about $25 million to retain Tyler Flowers, Nick Markakis, Chris Martin and Darren O’Day.
“When you look at the roster in the N.L.D.S., a lot of guys were on expiring contracts,” General Manager Alex Anthopoulos said Wednesday on a conference call. “Regardless, we were going to have a lot of work to do. It just worked out that way; a lot of the volume has been some of the returning players.”
Hamels, who essentially replaces the free agent Dallas Keuchel, said he received little interest from the Phillies, his original team. He was intrigued by the Braves all along, he said, and when they were the first team to make a strong offer, he was ready to sign without shopping around.
“I’ve watched them in the postseason and seen what they’ve been able to create, so I’ve always followed them in hopes of maybe having an opportunity to pitch with some of those guys,” Hamels said on the Braves’ conference call. “They have such good, young talent and I know that at this stage of my career, what I could provide could be beneficial. I see similarities to where I was in Philly when I was young and a lot of veterans came over and we were able to then win.”
The Phillies have not had a winning season since 2011, when Hamels was part of a rotation with Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee, who signed a five-year, $120 million contract before that season.
On Wednesday, Wheeler nearly matched that deal with the latest extravagant free-agent contract for a team that also signed starter Jake Arrieta for three years and $75 million before the 2018 season and outfielder Bryce Harper for 13 years and $330 million before last season.
The Wheeler deal may be riskiest of all. He has thrown fewer than 750 career innings, which means he has less wear on his arm than most pitchers his age, but also a long history of injuries that have kept him off the mound. Wheeler missed 2015 and 2016 after Tommy John surgery and made just 17 starts in 2017 because of more arm trouble.
He has been mostly healthy since then, and last season his average fastball velocity ranked fourth among major league starters, at 96.7 miles an hour. His slider velocity (91.2 m.p.h.) ranked second to that of his teammate Jacob deGrom. But while Wheeler has pitched well in the last two seasons (23-15 with a 3.65 earned run average), his E.R.A.+ in that time is just 107, a ballpark-adjusted figure that measures him as only 7 percent better than league average.
“Kyle Gibson is in this range of a pitcher, statistically, but people look at Wheeler and believe that he’s got upside” Phillips said. “Usually you sign this kind of guy because you think you’re going to get a value, because you’re going to sign him at what he’s been and get the benefit of what he becomes. What they did is they’re paying him for what their dream says he’s going to be, rather than what reality says he is.”
In that way, Wheeler profiles somewhat like Darren Dreifort, A.J. Burnett and Jeff Samardzija, right-handers with exceptional stuff who signed lucrative free agent deals based more on promise than on track record.
Those pitchers all signed in the good old days of free agency for the players, an era that just might be back.