Keidel: DeGrom A Victim Of Baseball's Cruel Free Agency System

Jason Keidel
February 14, 2019 - 10:43 am

Jacob deGrom may have become too good too late. 

Too late to properly monetize his talent. Too late to cash in on his historically sublime 2018 season. Too late to strong-arm the Mets into a deal he deserves. 

We all marveled at his impossible performance last year, in which he toyed with the best batters in the world, put up PlayStation stats and bagged the NL Cy Young Award on a wholly mediocre club. For his unmatched results last year, deGrom earned $7.4 million. The pitcher who finished second in the Cy Young voting, Max Scherzer, made $22 million. And while deGrom did earn a record-setting raise in arbitration for this season -- his salary is up to $17 million -- he is still not a free agent until after the 2020 season, when he will be 32 years old. 

According to the New York Post, deGrom's agent at CAA has suggested that players who are toiling under team control at cut-rate prices should impose inning limits or other workload restrictions so that greats like deGrom don't morph into Matt Harvey. 

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Jeff Berry, who has replaced new Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen as deGrom's agent, penned an aggressive memo suggesting that MLB has weaponized aging curves and usage rates against players. Berry has outlined the clashing goals between players and their teams. The former want to be peaking just as they hit unrestricted free agency, while the latter want to drain as much production before the big deal comes, so that they can lowball the athlete or simply let him walk. 

You would be wise to wonder where Van Wagenen's head is in all of this. Does he still have an agent's heart? Does he favor his former clients? Or will he use what he knows about them just enough to keep a contract just out of reach? 

Players and their reps are particularly sensitive now that we've gone almost a full winter without the best two free agents, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado -- both in their primes -- signing a contract, or even being offered one that approaches their perceived value. After years of bank-breaking deals, owners have added zippers to their pockets and are set on resetting the market. 

If deGrom were 25, then he could take some solace in his age and wage, knowing he will get his nine-digit deal by age 27. But he and his people know he's in a contractual jam. Van Wagenen can remind us how much the Mets love and covet their best pitcher, but there's a reason they haven't signed him beyond this year. They are waiting to see if he's still the same pitcher when 2020 rolls around, and they are not required to lock him down a day before. 

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DeGrom can hold out next year and dangle his divine right arm at other clubs. But his options are rather limited. And we've seen this in team sports too many times. In the NFL, they own your first four pro years at discount rates. Then they can franchise-tag you into hysteria. 

Agents are so frustrated they want the MLB Players Association to implement some form of player-first protection across the board, fan out from Seattle to Miami, from San Diego to Boston. The MLBPA is already considered the strongest in team sports, with players routinely signing contracts of generational wealth. 

So, at least in the case of deGrom, he may just have smacked into some bad luck. Maybe if he had developed his Cooperstown-strong arm a bit sooner or not been sidetracked by Tommy John surgery in the minors, he would be making Scherzer money today. He still deserves a contract extension, but pro sports are only a meritocracy on the field. The rest is bargained. Meanwhile, MLB takes every bargain it can, like the one the Mets have in Jacob deGrom.   

Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel.