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Baseball’s off-season could benefit from a little TMZ-like coverage | The Star

Major League Baseball could learn a thing or two from the free-agent frenzy currently taking place in the National Basketball Association.

Toronto’s sporting world came to a standstill Wednesday afternoon with reports that Kawhi Leonard flew into the city from Los Angeles. Closed-circuit cameras zoomed in on tarmacs, helicopters were commissioned to follow a black SUV, hundreds of people showed up outside a downtown hotel. Social media tracked every movement.

Some people were appalled by the TMZ-like coverage, others hung on every word. What all groups appeared to share in common was they could not look away. No matter how ridiculous the whole situation seemed to be, it became must-watch television. A sport putting itself directly into the spotlight and dominating the headlines.

Leonard clearly is a special case. Most free agents do not generate this type of attention, nor should they, but the way Week 1 of free agency was handled in the NBA is still a clear indicator of how much the business in baseball needs to change. Free agency is broken, and it can’t continue to operate under its current form for much longer.

There was no shortage of drama in the NBA this week. In the first eight hours of the NBA free agency period, 48 players signed contracts valued at more than $3.2 billion (U.S.). Fans and reporters were glued to their phones, not wanting to miss the game of musical chairs as the league completely transformed.

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Compare that to the most recent MLB off-season, a winter that had been anticipated for years and that the league had touted as the best in recent memory. It wasn’t quite the countdown to LeBron James’ free agency but, with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado set to hit the open market, it was supposed to be baseball’s version of the next best thing.

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Then the off-season opened for business and all the stores were empty. Hardly any teams seemed interested in spending money, or even pretending they aspired to field a contender. Instead of racing to be the first to submit an offer, front offices appeared allergic to putting pen to paper. In the NBA, there have already been 11 players signed to deals worth more than $100 million. In baseball’s off-season, there were three.

The Yankees bowed out of the major free agents, the Red Sox wanted no part of it, the Dodgers seemed disinterested in doing much of anything and everyone else was more worried about finding market inefficiencies than signing big-name players. November, December and January all came and went with hardly any deals, barely any rumours. It wasn’t until mid-February that Machado signed. Harper missed the first two weeks of spring training before reaching his deal.

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The biggest issue in MLB free agency right now is that players are no longer being rewarded for past performances. Instead, front offices have evolved to the point where executives believe they are in a better position to predict the future with modern analytics combined with historical data associated with aging players.

In theory, that’s a good thing. Teams want to make a habit of paying players what they are currently worth, not for the value they used to bring. The news is far less positive for the players who are dealing with the change in philosophy while also having their salaries artificially driven down by service time manipulation, three years of rookie-scale contracts and three more years of arbitration.

That might be acceptable enough if you’re Harper, who debuted at 19 and became a free agent at 26 in the prime of his career. It’s another thing entirely if you’re Josh Donaldson and not hitting free agency until age 32. Nobody should feel bad for players making $20 million a year, but it feels like they should have some say in where they play before entering the downside of their careers.

Baseball used to be the sport that remained in the news for 11 months of the year. Teams aggressively tried to sign players in November with an annual slew of trades before the December winter meetings. Organizations then spent January and February marketing their teams in the lead-up to the start of camp while the front offices enjoyed a well-deserved break.

Now it feels like the off-season has barely even started by the time teams report in the spring. In 2018, the Blue Jays signed Seunghwan Oh, John Axford and Tyler Clippard after players started reporting to camp. This year, it was Clay Buchholz and Bud Norris.

The lack of deals got so bad two years ago that the MLB Players’ Association had to hold its own camp to provide unsigned players with a place to train. Some people might call it collusion amongst the owners, a collective effort to drive down costs. Others might call it good business, with veteran players finally being paid what they are worth instead of being handed blank cheques.

Regardless of the cause, it’s clear the current system is broken. Edwin Encarnacion should not be traded for peanuts at a time when he is leading the AL in home runs. Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel should not have to wait until after the June draft to find suitable homes.

This is a game that doesn’t have enough contending teams. It’s also a game that has started to limit what veterans are able to earn on the open market. That’s all fine and good, but owners shouldn’t act surprised in two years time when the players start demanding quicker paths to free agency. If the veterans aren’t going to get paid, the younger players better be.

If not, there won’t just be a countdown until free agency, there will be a countdown to a labour strike.

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Gregor Chisholm is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @GregorChisholm or reach him via email: gchisholm@thestar.ca

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