Standout players like Taillon — who posted a 3.20 earned run average in 32 starts last season — can marvel at the trend while still expecting to someday sign a lucrative contract. But while Harper and Machado scored big in free agency, many more veterans will open this season with much lower salaries than players of their caliber once commanded.
That has contributed to a growing sense among players that a system that once reliably rewarded their years of toil no longer works for them. The flurry of contract extensions late in spring training only underscored the point: Take what’s in front of you, because the open market can be a cold, lonely place.
“If you look at the guys that are having to sign these nonroster deals, or guys that still don’t have jobs, far and away most of them comprise that middle class of baseball players,” said Sean Doolittle, the All-Star closer for the Washington Nationals.
“They’re not the young guys anymore, and they’re not the superstars. They’re very serviceable big leaguers, they’re past arbitration, they’re veterans, and the market for those guys is evaporating. Teams are no longer looking at that eight-year veteran who they might have to spend several million on as someone that can help their team. They’ll take the cheaper labor — the guy that has options, gives them roster flexibility, and costs a lot less.”
Players need six years of major league service to become free agents, and between two and three years to be eligible for salary arbitration. It could be that the sophistication of player development — in the United States amateur ranks, the international market and major league farm systems — is producing a deeper pool of acceptable choices for major league rosters.
“When I first started scouting in 2007, veteran scouts would still talk about high school kids getting homesick, guys that had never left their hometown, and that’s just not the case anymore,” said Mike Elias, the Baltimore Orioles’ general manager. “These guys, when they enter professional baseball, they’ve already hit with wood, they’ve been on the travel circuit, they know each other from the summers. They’re ready.”