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Championships cannot be acquired through free agency alone

The Mets did what every fanbase wishes their team would do and went on a massive spending spree. It didn’t pay off. What happened?

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Pitcher Justin Verlander #35 of the New York Mets sits in the dugout after being relieved in the sixth inning of a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on July 30, 2023 in New York City. The Mets defeated the Nationals 5-2 as Verlander recorded his 250th career win.
Pitcher Justin Verlander #35 of the New York Mets sits in the dugout after being relieved in the sixth inning of a game against the Washington Nationals at Citi Field on July 30, 2023 in New York City. The Mets defeated the Nationals 5-2 as Verlander recorded his 250th career win.
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

During the 2022/2023 MLB off-season, the Mets did what every fan base wishes their team would do - they spent big. They not only retained their own pending free agents, but they went out and got a couple of the biggest available free agents in Justin Verlander and Kodai Senga. When the season started, their payroll totaled more than $330 million. Things looked bright.

Then they went 75-87, finishing fourth in the crowded NL East, and dealt away many of those excellent, expensive players at the deadline because they knew they weren’t going to be able to compete.

Now one narrative that went around is that the Mets spent unwisely. And that just doesn’t seem to hold up. Sure, Edwin Diaz missed the entire season with an injury, but the rest of the guys they brought in mostly played and played well. Max Scherzer didn’t quite live up to expectations in New York, but he was still considered valuable enough to bring back top prospect Luisangel Acuña in a trade, so it’s not like the Mets were the only ones who thought he was pretty dang valuable. You might be tempted to think the Mets’ problem was being in the stacked AL East, but the MLB schedule changes last year back to something more balanced meant they didn’t face their direct competition that much more often.

No, the Mets seemed to have two other problems that were holding them back. The first is that baseball, more than any of the other three big-money sports, is a team sport. The other is the very nature of MLB free agency.

Teamwork teamwork teamwork

My primary point of comparison for the first is, of course, the NFL. For the Kansas City Chiefs, the playoffs are almost a guarantee no matter what else happens as long as they have Patrick Mahomes. Everyone understands that quarterbacks have an outsized impact on their team’s chances of winning, but it can happen with other positions as well. Justin Jefferson, Aaron Donald, and Christian McCaffrey are so good at their own jobs that they also give their teams a much higher chance of winning all by themselves.

But in the MLB, no team stands as a greater tribute to teamwork than the Los Angeles Angels. They had two generationally talented players on their roster for the past several years and didn’t even sniff the post-season once. The only time they made the playoffs with Mike Trout they were unceremoniously swept out in their first series against a Wild Card team that had been under .500 as late as July 22.

The Mets signed a handful of players to big contracts, but it turns out that even a small handful may not be enough. You need most, if not all, if not more than your 26-man roster to be clicking for much of the season if you want to have a shot at glory in October.

The nature of free agency

The other problem with MLB free agency is free agency itself. Players on rookie deals have their earnings so suppressed for so long that by the time they reach free agency they’re rarely going to take less than the very most money they can get. But the other problem with the length of rookie contracts combined with how difficult it is to play major league baseball at a high level is that by the time players reach free agency, they’re often on the downswing, production-wise, even though you still have to pay top dollar to get them. This is only compounded by the fact that MLB teams have been leveraging their position in recent years to sign their young stars to lengthy extensions which keep them from reaching free agency for even longer, if ever.

No matter how much I argue that teams can spend more than they do, even I have to admit that spending free agency dollars for the entire 26-man roster simply isn’t feasible in the current climate. But the frustrating thing is that even if you could, because free agents are so rarely available with multiple peak years left, your team wouldn’t be good for long before you’d need to swap them out for a whole new set of free agents. Now we’re going far past $100 million in excess spending and into something more like $500 million or more. Even the most generous billionaire simply couldn’t support spending like that.

So what about the Royals?

So, yeah, the 2023 Royals lost 106 games. They’re not going to compete in 2024 simply through free agency, no matter how wildly they might consider spending. Of course, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t do any free agent spending.

Under Dayton Moore, the Royals held a belief that winning games begets a winning attitude and leads to winning more games. For whatever it's worth, it seems reasonable to think there might be some truth to that. It’s hard to imagine the 2015 Royals being as good as they were without the victories they earned in 2014. The Royals might have had more competitive years if he’d been willing to tank during some of them, but properly tanking requires more than losing games and hoping to hit on your high draft pick. You have to maximize opportunities for improving your roster in other ways, by sending veterans away for young potential and looking for reclamation projects, Under Moore, the Royals often just lost a lot of games, held on to their veterans, and then lost some more the next year.

Still, attitudes can dictate a lot. If you don’t believe your team is capable of winning, it might seem pointless to put in extra work in the video room or batting cages which can lead to worse results and further belief that there’s just nothing you can do to fix things which just leads to more losing and less effort.

In order for that attitude to pay off, you’ve got to actually have players with the talent for the extra effort to make a difference. That’s where Moore so often went wrong, believing it was sufficient to simply insist that they weren’t going to rebuild and demanding guys perform better than they were capable.

Baseball players aren’t stupid. Or, at least, not any stupider than any other random group of men. If the Royals enter the 2024 season with largely the same roster that lost 106 games the year before, they’re not going to see a lot of hope and things can easily spiral from there. Some guys will still work hard in hopes of future paydays, but if the Royals signal that these guys can basically have a job for life, that too may seem unnecessary. The Royals don’t have the assets to attempt to tank, but they’re not as hopeless as a lot of those Dayton Moore teams, either, there are some flashes of talent on this roster. Some new faces that make guys believe that if they hold up their end of the bargain, the whole team can be something other than an embarrassment could really help some of the players for whom last year’s evaluation didn’t answer enough questions find their footing.

Re: Last week’s article

Last week I wrote, in part, about how the Padres paying their player salaries with a loan is a standard practice in MLB and in big business in general. I continued on that they probably leaked the loan in order to try and paint themselves as having less spending power than they do in order to convince fans to be less upset when they cut payroll this offseason.

Since I wrote that piece, I discovered more information.

  1. The team could have borrowed more. Reporting suggests that the lender they borrowed $50 million from was happy to give them twice as much money. Banks aren’t in the habit of taking risks with the loans they give out, so if they were willing to loan twice as much to the Padres as they took out, they must have figured they’d be good for it.
  2. Some people doubted my assertion that MLB teams regularly take out loans to pay expenses despite the fact that Evan Drellich reported the same thing in his coverage of the situation. However, this article from before the season, states that the Padres were expected to bring in so much profit that they’d actually have had to contribute to the revenue-sharing program instead of receiving from it - fully aware of what their payroll would be this year.

Your first thought might be that they lost a bunch of money when Bally Sports stopped paying them for their TV rights. The TV rights were worth about $60M annually to them and MLB promised they’d get at least 80% of that (emphasis mine) from the league after it took over the broadcasting. Twenty percent of $60M is $12M but the Padres wanted to take out the full $100M before MLB told them no.

The Padres also sold more tickets - and presumably more merchandise - than they did in 2022. In fact, they set a franchise record for attendance at more than 3 billion and sold more tickets than any other team not named Yankees or Dodgers in 2023. You don’t go from “so profitable you have to give your money away” to “so broke you have no choice but to take out an unexpected $100M loan” without some dire emergency. I could find no evidence of such an emergency.

Plus the first cited article references the team taking out other such loans in recent years as a sign of their lately increasing profitability,