A few weeks ago, Peter Moylan took his family to New York. They strolled around a snowy Central Park and hit up Times Square. One day, they saw the Broadway show “School of Rock.”
The vacation was not explicitly set up as a distraction from baseball’s dull, downtempo offseason. Above all, it was simply vacation. Yet for Moylan, a 39-year-old free-agent relief pitcher, the trip coincided with the strangest, slowest winter of his career.
“I’ve never seen it like this,” he told The Star this week.
Less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers begin reporting to spring camps in Arizona and Florida, the Major League Baseball free-agent market is still mired in a heavy gridlock, with more than 100 players still available, including a list of premium targets. As the calendar turned to February on Thursday, top hitters J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas were still available. So were starters Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta and a host of valuable players stuck firmly in baseball’s middle class.
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The list of available free agents could fill out a 25-man roster and contend for a playoff spot. The market has been so thin, the backlog of talent so great, that a collection of players have pondered holding out and creating their own spring training camp later this month, according to Yahoo’s Jeff Passan.
“It’s been kind of crazy how the free agency has gone,” said Royals outfielder Alex Gordon, who last took part in the process after the 2015 season. “I don’t think anybody expected this.”
The elite free agents have yet to sign. Much of the next tier is still waiting. The theories and possible explanations range in scope and creativity. Perhaps none is sufficient. Maybe a cohort of data-driven executives are pushing back against expensive, long-term contracts that are fully guaranteed and rarely worth it. Maybe this class of free agents has been foiled by a market in which the usual big spenders have few needs and holes. Where some see the possibility of indirect collusion, others see an outlier winter.
These factors don’t explain everything, of course. And beyond the top tiers of free agents there are players such as Moylan, a side-arming right-handed specialist who rejuvenated his career in his late 30s and is coming off a sterling, if under-noticed, season in 2017. In a more conventional offseason, Moylan might still be unemployed. Last year, he waited all winter for a major-league contract before relenting and signing a minor-league deal with the Royals at the start of spring training. Yet the sluggish market has affected all manner of players.
Moylan’s representatives have been in contact with multiple teams this offseason, including the Royals. He has publicly stated his desire to stay in Kansas City. But like many free agents, the wait continues.
“For me, the only thing that is a little frustrating is the unknown,” Moylan said. “Not knowing where I am going to be in two weeks, not knowing where I’m going to spend the season, not being able to line up housing for either.
“It’s been kind of crazy how the free agency has gone. I don’t think anybody expected this.”
Moylan stresses he is not complaining. In the end, most players will sign at least seven-figure contracts to play baseball. There are worse fates. Yet there are family stresses and last-minute logistics and circumstances that offer a window into free agency that is often unseen by most fans.
In a matter of days and weeks, families must uproot and relocate across the country. Players must find schools for their children in new cities or spend months apart. This, of course, has been a reality for years, and not limited to this year’s market. But all across baseball, players have been left to sweat out the final weeks before camp.
Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar waited nearly three months before signing a one-year contract on Monday.
“But I guess you can say this is what we signed up for,” Moylan said.
Moylan, of course, does not have to be embarking on another baseball season just months after celebrating his 39th birthday. His career earnings are meager compared to the standards of the day, but they are still considerable. His career — a storybook tale — has been a lesson in perseverance and will.
As a teenage prospect in the Twins system, he was once released and banished back to his native Australia. By his mid 20s, he settled into a career as a pharmaceutical sales rep after stints as a pool plumber and concrete layer. His only tie to baseball was a local club team. Moylan was a player-coach.
His salvation came in the form of the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006. Moylan made the Australian team and impressed major-league scouts. Nearly 12 years later, he has weathered two Tommy John surgeries, a shoulder reconstruction and a procedure for a bulging disc in his back. In 2017, he had one of the best years of his career, leading the American League with 79 appearances and holding right-handed hitters to a paltry .161 batting average and .479 OPS.
“I have more motivation now,” Moylan said.
His age and injury history would give any front office momentary pause. But Moylan remains undeterred, emboldened by the years he lost to injury and his time away from the game.
Last fall, he voiced his desire to return to the Royals bullpen, a place in which he’s found comfort and success. But his skillset can play in most any relief corps. He can still neutralize right-handed hitters and induce ground balls in high-leverage situations. His side-arming style has proven remarkably resilient across two seasons in Kansas City.
Last season, Moylan logged a 1.57 ERA in 28 2/3 innings across 38 appearances after the All-Star break. On multiple occasions, he was asked to pitch three straight games or four out of five.
“I feel like I missed so much time because I didn’t take care of myself,” Moylan said. “I’ve found a sweet spot with my preparation. I know what it takes to stay healthy and take the ball whenever I’m called.”
And so, in the weeks before camp, before the annual banalities of spring training, before the sun and the hope and the roster competitions, he prepared his 39-year-old body for another 162-game grind.
Moylan is not Tom Brady, the future Hall of Fame quarterback who adheres to a militant diet at the age of 40. Yet he has mostly cut out alcohol from his diet and found a routine that works for him. He could be done with baseball by now. He could be lounging at home and done with the glacial free-agent market and all the uncertainty. But Moylan is not ready for that. Like hundreds of players who will head out to camp this month, he believes he has more baseball left, more chances to take the ball and succeed. Soon, he’ll know where.
“Still got a good two to three years left,” he said.