The Rundown: Playoff Expansion Hurting Free Agency, Imanaga Shoves in First Bullpen, Manfred Not Seeking Another Term

I was thinking this morning about what baseball was like before the popularization of the internet. Remember those Cactus and Grapefruit League box scores in the Chicago Tribune or Sun-Times, and for our older readers, Chicago Today? It was almost impossible to determine substitutions or discern what happened.

Digital accessibility and the omnipresence of spring training broadcasts have changed everything. Information arrives as it breaks and we can watch almost every game live from Arizona or Florida. The information highway has made analysts of us all, and though opinions tend to vary greatly, the responses in our comments section and on other blogs often help to create our next columns. For that, I am extremely grateful to have a following here at Cubs Insider.

I respect those opinions, too, and I’m not afraid to say what everybody is thinking: Front offices across baseball are putting the squeeze on Scott Boras, and the current status of Cody Bellinger, Matt Chapman, Blake Snell, and Jordan Montgomery makes that obvious. Is it blatant collusion? Perhaps, but Rod Manfred has at the very least proved what an ownership stooge he is by opting not to interfere. Baseball’s soon-to-be-retired commissioner will ride into the sunset having helped the owners stifle Boras and what they believe are egregiously high salaries.

Wait, Manfred did make that a point of procedure when he announced he wouldn’t seek another term. The commissioner mentioned that he’d like to implement a free-agent signing deadline, which would increase ownership’s leverage over unsigned players.

The evidence against front-office collusion is admittedly circumstantial, but the absurd spending spree by the Dodgers certainly helps to acquit Manfred and his 30 cronies. A less-than-robust market for everybody else played right into their hands, too.

Baseball wants to get younger because that’s the cheaper route. Teams are putting more money into scouting and development than they are into adding proven veterans. With that in mind, Los Angeles did 29 front offices a huge favor by buying Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto to create a seemingly unbeatable team, though perception means nothing.

Like most businesses, MLB owners strive to optimize profits by expanding revenue and limiting costs. The Braves started a trend by locking up prospects Ronald Acuña Jr. and Ozzie Albies, among others, at ridiculously low prices. You can’t convince me that first-generation contract extensions are not the future of America’s pastime. Jackson Chourio is the latest prospect to ink a long-term extension. The 19-year-old outfielder has yet to face a big league pitcher, but he took $82 million in guarantees from the Brewers with incentives that could total $140 million.

That trend has been nothing short of a blessing if you’re a draftnik and prospect fan, but it’s bad for baseball. No matter what you think of the game’s rise in salaries over the past 50 years, a prosperous open market with competition among buyers and sellers makes baseball a stronger game, and it’s better, if not much fairer, for the players. The rise in the game’s popularity since free agency began in 1975-76 is the only argument I need. The contrarian viewpoint is that first-generation extensions level the playing field for small market teams, but they do not. The owners are simply buying the type of fiefdom they used to enjoy for a pittance under the Reserve Clause.

By agreeing to these types of extensions, owners and players are explicitly leveraging the rules of the game, specifically the reserve rule under the Basic Agreement which limits the mobility of players through their arbitration years. The Cubs locked up Nico Hoerner and Ian Happ last year, the first time they’ve done that since Kyle Hendricks and David Bote signed extensions a week apart in 2019. All four had already played at the major league level, however.

Hoyer is a lot more comfortable hedging on the promise of his prospects than he is overextending the organization’s checkbook for overpriced free agents. That worked when he refused to re-sign Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, Anthony Rizzo, and Kyle Schwarber, but what happens if Pete Crow-Armstrong, Michael Busch, Matt Shaw, and Cade Horton become stars? It seems doubtful that Hoyer will agree to meet their contractual demands.

Playing in a division of all small- and mid-market teams adds to Hoyer’s level of relaxation. It also endears him to team owner and chairman Tom Ricketts. Chicago’s president of baseball operations doesn’t have to outspend his rivals to beat them (and he hasn’t), he needs to simply make 85 wins his primary focus. The other teams with a need for one of the Boras Four are exercising the same type of financial restraint. The Rangers made the postseason as a Wild Card team and won the World Series over the Diamondbacks, another Wild Card entry who finished the 2023 regular season with 84 wins. That’s why MLB owners were so eager to expand the playoffs as part of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The postseason has become the gauntlet to what used to be true of the regular season. That war of attrition has been replaced with a cutthroat version of a path to a league championship thanks to the introduction of the Wild Card in 1995, and recurring postseason expansion amplifies that. I believe that makes baseball more enjoyable, but it does homogenize Games 1-162 while adversely affecting salaries, just as most predicted. It also makes it easier for front offices to collude, intentionally or otherwise.

Boras has become a dinosaur in this new version of baseball for all intents and purposes, and I firmly believe baseball owners, along with their polarizing commissioner, want nothing more than to rid themselves of his types of negotiations. We’ll have to wait and see what his clients agree to before making that judgment, but now that players have started to report for all 30 teams, Boras continues to bleed leverage, and Cubs fans wait in limbo for any sign that Bellinger will return.

Cubs News & Notes

Odds & Sods

Ben Brown is working with the bullpen group, which we’ve all thought was obvious going back to last season. He will eventually start, but working as a reliever strengthens Chicago’s bullpen.

Central Intelligence

Spring Training News & Notes

Dan Halem is considered the frontrunner to replace Manfred, though Theo Epstein will be mentioned often.

The commissioner’s job is to serve 30 billionaires, so Manfred has been a success in that aspect.

Manfred suggested that A’s fans should root for the Giants if they are upset about the team leaving Oakland. He’s a class act.

The league plans to strictly enforce the obstruction rule this season.

The Orioles are working the phones in an attempt to acquire a pitcher or two.

A whistleblower believed to be a Mets employee reportedly provided evidence that Billy Eppler manipulated the team’s injury reports.

The Padres are shifting shortstop Xander Bogaerts to second base.

The Marlins have reportedly made a contract offer to free-agent shortstop Tim Anderson.

The Angels are mulling a run at the top free agents, specifically Bellinger or Blake Snell. They’re also interested in Michael Lorenzen and Amed Rosario,

Extra Innings

Shōta shoving.

Friday Morning Six-Pack

  1. Prayers up for Steve McMichael, who went to the ER with pneumonia on Thursday.
  2. The Bears said goodbye to two of their longest-tenured players, safety Eddie Jackson and offensive lineman Cody Whitehair.
  3. The departure of those players gave Chicago an estimated $21.5 million in cap space, something GM Ryan Poles has become quite adept at managing.
  4. Iowa point guard Caitlin Clark broke the women’s NCAA scoring record last night against Michigan, surpassing the previous record of 3,527 points and cementing her status as the NCAA’s best female basketball player of all time.
  5. But wait a hot minute…Lynette Woodard, who played for Kansas in the 1970s, scored 3,649 points in her four years. She doesn’t officially hold the NCAA record because the NCAA didn’t include women’s sports at the time. Woodard was also the first female member of the Harlem Globetrotters.
  6. Do you know who else played for the Globetrotters for three seasons?

They said it

  • “Just seeing [Imanaga’s] stuff, I think it’s come as advertised. It’s just a really unique fastball. We’re just trying to talk through ways we think he can continue to use it in effective ways. And then just seeing the rest of the repertoire, he’s got a complete repertoire. He’s a complete package of a pitcher.”Tommy Hottovy
  • “One thing that really stands out for me and something I really want to implement into my game is how quick [Imanaga] is to the plate, his slide step, how he’s always loaded it seems like. Watching his bullpens I already see things I kind of want to take from his game and add to mine, and obviously, his pitches within themselves are just really filthy. It’s a lot of fun to watch his bullpens just the way he controls and manipulates the ball.”Justin Steele
  • “We would prefer to have a free-agent signing period with a deadline that drove people to make their deals. We actually made proposals to that effect, to the MLBPA. They were not warmly received. One of the tactics that’s available to player representatives is to stretch out the negotiation in the belief that they’re going to get a better deal. That’s part of the system right now. There’s not a lot we can do about it. We’d rather have two weeks of flurried activity in December, preferably around the winter meetings.” – Manfred
  • “Deadlines are death-lines to the players. It’s a death of their right (to free agency). It’s an artificial reason not to get your value. Teams cannibalize deadlines. Everything they would do would be around the deadline. ‘I’ll wait and get this value at this time because I have a deadline,’ rather than, ‘What’s the player worth?'” – Boras

Friday Walk-Up Song

The path from Cubs prospect to MLB free agent is much too predictable for my liking.

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