Lessons from Ian Desmond saga as CBA talks begin

It's fitting that Ian Desmond has signed the last major free agent contract before officials with Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association begin work on a new collective bargaining agreement. He represents the vagaries of the open market better than perhaps any other player in baseball. 

Two years ago, Desmond turned down a reported five-year, $90 million contract extension from the Washington Nationals.

This week, despite hitting the most home runs of any big-league shortstop over the past four seasons, he signed a one-year deal with the Texas Rangers worth $8 million . . . and he's going to play left field.

Was Desmond's .674 OPS in 2015 — after averaging .788 over the prior three seasons —€” primarily to blame for the disappointing number? Did the loss of a draft pick to sign Desmond — because he'd rejected a qualifying offer — have a dramatic effect? Or have the spending habits of teams changed in a more fundamental way?

Greg Fiume

The answer could have profound ramifications on the sport's next basic agreement. Here are a few things to keep in mind as the labor negotiations begin:

Age matters. A lot. 

Industry churn has produced a higher percentage of sabermetrically oriented general managers, and much of their analysis points to an old-fashioned number: a player's birthdate.

Attitudes have shifted even in the short time since Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano signed their 10-year, $240 million contracts earlier this decade. Had free agents been available this winter with credentials identical to those of Pujols in '11-12 and Cano in '13-14, they almost certainly would've signed for less. Age, not performance, is the reason.

Pujols will play the final season of his contract at age 41. Cano will be 40. GMs are increasingly uncomfortable with commitments that reach that point of a player's age curve. But the inverse explains why Jason Heyward — Opening Day age: 26 —€” signed the longest contract this winter of any free-agent position player, eight years with the Chicago Cubs, despite hitting 13 home runs as a corner outfielder last year.

The principle also explains why Bryce Harper —€” also on track to hit the market at 26 —€” is poised to sign a record-shattering deal.

Angels Pujols Baseball

The days of aging players like Albert Pujols landing megadeals are over.

Jae C. Hong / AP

Desmond, meanwhile, could bounce back in 2016 and still not find the five-year term he rejected from the Nationals. If he has an All-Star season, the Rangers probably would make him a qualifying offer in November, by which point he will be 31.

This winter, Alex Gordon's four-year deal to stay in Kansas City was the longest contract signed by a qualified position player 31 or older. Daniel Murphy (Mets to Nationals) was the only player in that category to switch teams on more than a one-year contract.

One possible solution

In discussing the new CBA, the MLBPA is likely to press for massive changes to the qualifying offer system —€” if not its total demise. But if the Q.O. must remain, one person in the industry mentioned a reasonable suggestion: add a provision that prohibits players from being tagged by a qualifying offer in consecutive offseasons.

In other words, the players who accepted the one-year, $15.8 million deals in November — Brett Anderson, Colby Rasmus, and Matt Wieters — would be unfettered in the 2016-17 marketplace, as would the three qualified free agents who signed one-year deals: Desmond, Dexter Fowler and Hisashi Iwakuma.

More time could help

In hindsight, Desmond and Howie Kendrick —€” who signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Dodgers —€” would've benefited from accepting qualifying offers. Part of the reason: Ultimately, a relatively small number of teams were active in signing everyday players at their positions (shortstop and second base).

So, did their agents misread the market? Or did teams overstate their interest early in free agency, leading to the perception that lucrative multiyear offers were a certainty? 

Additional time to consider the qualifying offer might address that potential communication gap for future free agents. Players currently have seven days to consider the tender, while discussing contract proposals with other clubs; an increase to 14 days would've allowed Desmond and Kendrick to gather more information and potentially decide to accept the one-year, $15.8 million offers.

Should future Gerrit Coles be the concern?

Pirates Cole Baseball

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole, and All-Star last year, reportedly will make only $541,000 this season.

Lenny Ignelzi / AP

Credit to John in New York for an excellent call to MLB Network Radio while I was co-hosting with Jody McDonald on Wednesday afternoon: He pointed out that as teams move away from the longstanding model of rewarding past performance and seniority (e.g., Pujols and Cano), the MLBPA would be wise to do the same.

That would mean worrying less about the players who receive qualifying offers —€” 20 this winter —€” and more about young pitchers like Gerrit Cole, who signed with the Pirates for a reported $541,000 this year despite an All-Star season in 2015.

MLB teams have broad latitude to assign contracts to most players with fewer than three years of service, as Cole does; that practice obviously affects a larger number of union members than the qualifying offer, and those players have less clout than their more experienced teammates up the pay scale.

If one includes all players on 40-man rosters, the qualifying offer impacted roughly 1.7 percent of major leaguers this winter. Ensuring that future Coles earn another $100,000 during a particular season early in their careers would resonate throughout the sport.

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