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The disappearing middle class in baseball


Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel. These are just a few of the marquee names that will be on the open market next winter. Throw in players with opt-out clauses such as Clayton Kershaw and David Price, and this free agent class has the potential to be one of the greatest of all time. But with the anomalous class this year that squeezed many players expecting to get big money, long-term deals, how will next offseason play out?

FanGraphs recently published an article discussing the shrinking middle class in baseball. With the star power available on next year’s market plus the takers of pillow contracts (i.e. Mike Moustakas), will this trend continue?

Much of this offseason’s stinginess was fueled by teams becoming smarter about making expensive, long-term agreements with players for fear that they will be getting a poor return on investment in the latter years of the contracts. However, the looming free agent class must have also played a role, with teams wanting to save now in order to splurge later.

Yet if, for example, a team decides to pay Bryce Harper $400 million, that would likely signal that they would not make any more significant signings. With the plethora of players expected to receive big contracts, it could be that the middle class may fall victim to another rough winter. And who knows how long this will continue? The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) will not expire until 2021, not giving the players union much leverage to spark a change.

Luckily for the Yankees, they are in a position as a franchise where a stagnant free agency would not be too much of an issue. They are one of the few teams in the league who actually have the financial might to be able to shell out a monstrous contract for Machado or Harper. Furthermore, they hope to have many of their positions occupied by young, controllable players, not leaving a need to find a mid-level player to fill a hole. This is on display right now, for example, with a wealth of outfielders vying for a spot on the 25-man roster. They were forced to send Miguel Andujar back to Triple-A, even though he might be perceived as ready to earn a full-time gig in the Majors. All in all, if all goes according to plan, they appear to be set – at least for next year.

Baseball Reference estimates the Yankees’ 2019 guaranteed payroll to be approximately $88.3 million, and around $153.7 million when you include options, arbitration, and other costs. If they are at that latter figure and still want to try and contain their payroll to under $200 million, their hands will likely be tied if they were to make a big splash on a player such as Machado.

So the middle class in baseball is indeed shrinking, and until the CBA expires in a few years, the trend could continue.