SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The word ringmaster Scott Boras returned to again and again Wednesday, either as an analogy or indictment, was “hibernation.” Too many teams, the agent argued, were cozying up to losing instead of contending every season, and that had a lullaby effect on the free-agent market and fans’ interest.
What may be true for baseball’s summer also fits his big season, the winter.
One could nod off in November and still find brand-name free agents available in February. Action on free agents is increasingly sleepy, stretching sometimes into June before All-Stars sign. And Boras, the Heat Miser of this offseason with arguably the best single-agent stockade of free-agent talent ever, has been happy to play patient.
The market will meet him, eventually. But in the meantime, in a marketplace run these days by text and emails, that button general managers seem to be pressing on their smartphones isn’t send. It’s snooze.
The delay is “we have an implied metric saying, ‘I don’t endeavor into the free-agent market until I go to the trade market because in the trade market my analytics team is the smartest people in the world and they can dupe these other teams into making poor trades, (and) I will win the WAR battle,’” Boras said, referencing Wins Above Replacement. “I just got one-WAR advantage of you! In the free-agent market that is a sucker’s bet. Because (teams) don’t want to win. And, (they) don’t really want that player to advance possibly from 70 to 78 wins. He may do that. He may help us. ‘But I want to have a team that goes from 75 wins to 90 wins or I don’t want it all.’
“In many ways the industry is in a competitive hibernation,” he added. “We have to have a league about winning, a league about competition. In the big world, when you go to the zoo and half the bears are asleep you are not able to enjoy the zoo as it should be.”
In what’s become an annual address at the general manager meetings, Boras found shade, stood in the Omni Resorts Montelucia entry courtyard, and spoke for nearly an hour with the media. He trotted out familiar applause lines about his frustration with teams that don’t chase winning by way of spending. He had his verbal box of chocolates ready to describe various teams, and when asked about the Cardinals said how “the last time I looked there’s room for more birds on their chest.” The reference was to the team’s ability to spend on a franchise player.
And Boras sure does have one, two or seven in mind. This offseason, the market runs through Boras Corp.
The former Cardinals’ farmhand, and once a batting leader for the Class A St. Petersburg Cardinals, represents the top three players available as free agents and, by some rankings, at least five of the top nine. His portfolio of free agents includes aces Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, MVP candidate Anthony Rendon, extra-base monster Nicholas Castellanos, and contributing standouts such as Dallas Keuchel, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Mike Moustakas.
Cards may explore trades
Several of his clients no longer will cost their new team a draft pick, prompting Boras to say they “survived the system.” The Cardinals’ interest in a handful of his clients is on the peripheral at this point. Boras insisted a few times that the temperature in the market is rising swifter this season — there always is a hunger for pitching — and he doesn’t expect the market to drag.
But it could.
And that could benefit the Cardinals, who arrived at the GM meetings with less of a shopping list than in years past. The Cardinals have spent the week canvassing other teams for potential trades, not specific targets. They will explore trade talks for an outfielder, and they want to remain aware of the market for starting pitchers, especially as they monitor Carlos Martinez’s work this winter.
“I think I have the same assumption as others, that when one agent who has a history of being very patient with the market has multiple top guys, it suggests that the market might be patient,” Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch said. “Given that we’re not in pursuit of an individual thing, if everything takes a little while that gives us a little more time to explore trades and see what’s out there. We’ll work at whatever pace the market ends up being.”
Boras offered several snazzy sales pitches for his players.
“If this were Major League Christmas, we would be looking at 30 stockings that would clearly want a lump of Cole, absolutely,” he said of pitcher Gerrit.
“Old St. Nick delivers once a year. Young St. Nick delivers all season,” he said of Castellanos. “So you’ve got a pretty good market for that kind of player.”
“In the oceans of the playoffs, the Strasburg sank many contending ships,” he said about the World Series MVP.
Offered a chance to begin his news conference with a comment on the congressional hearings in Washington, Boras declined.
“I’ll talk about the impeachment of analytics. How’s that?” he asked.
Losing the WAR
The agent then, with stats at the ready, launched to a discussion on how baseball’s current accepted analytics — like WAR — are skewed, too shaped by risk and regression to truly capture great players who outperform projections. Or, he added, to measure what a veteran brings to talent around him. Boras has presented this argument before, that baseball has paralysis by analytics. The addition he gave Wednesday was how baseball ownership brags about its disciplined front offices, its fine-tuned metrics, and turned general managers into risk management.
Baseball’s statistical revolution first improved how the game evaluated talent — out went wins, in came WAR, down went the average age, up went the value of control — and has, in recent years, creeped into dictating how the game is played. That was first true with how rosters were constructed. Agents and the players’ union purposefully avoid the word collusion when discussing the chill that has gripped free agency, but if every team has adopted an analytical approach and analytics are based on math, a constant, then whether they use the word there’s an element of collusion by calculator.
“Our previous commissioner put rails on the system because he was very concerned that owners could not control themselves,” Boras said. “Luxury taxes and restraints on free agency and such, and yet this current commissioner has said the owners have an evaluation system that is wonderful. It’s great. They’re abiding by it. They’re more disciplined. Well, if that’s the case then I think we remove the rail that we create a living system that allows and rewards teams for competing.
“And yet we have clubs that just outwardly reject having (veteran) players on their team because they’re too expensive,” the agent continued. “Frankly, (teams) don’t want to win 82 games. They want to win 69 games. You know why? Because (they) get rewarded for it. That’s our current system — where the real cancer of it is today.”
The longterm prognosis, Boras insisted, is in the fan base.
Several times he referred to how the “competitive hibernation” was the cause of shrinking attendance. Tanking teams aren’t a draw, he argued. Raising ticket prices as the generation born into baseball isn’t attracting the next generation of baseball, Boras suggested.
His solution for this slumber is star power. Spending. Accelerating signings wouldn’t hurt. The two biggest names in last year’s free-agent market, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, didn’t sign until spring training. Craig Kimbrel and Keuchel not till June. Ten years ago, it seemed like forever into winter before the Cardinals signed Matt Holliday.
But he signed in early January. That’s relatively swift these days.
Boras clearly wanted to deliver a wake-up call Wednesday.
He’s part of the answer, too.
“What’s important to ownership? What drive do they have to where they’re going to take risk?” Boras asked. “All these things are risk in their mind. None of them are comfortable with it. They never are. But that’s how you win. You take risk. You pay a Max Scherzer $30 million a year when no one else would. By doing that you got rewarded. You got to the place few teams get to, and I think that’s what this free-agent process is about. Many of them want to be reserved, sustained. They’re going to do well. They’re going to do really well economically. . . .
“But the question is, do you want to win?”