In the lifespan of a major-league baseball player, there are precious few things more venerated or hallowed than the concept of free agency. A symbol of fortitude and resilience, players must accrue six full years of service time before reaching the riches of the open market. Once there, players are, finally, free to sign with the highest bidder, securing their careers with guaranteed contracts and their families with generational wealth.
The process is supposed to be pleasant — until it is not.
“Everybody wants things to work out in the perfect fashion,” former Royals pitcher Jason Vargas, a current free agent, said late last season. “But they usually don’t.”
This, perhaps, is the best way to describe the winter of third baseman Mike Moustakas, a free-agent foray turned potential nightmare in the space of four months. Maybe it’s the only way. Amid a sluggish free-agent market, in a winter of player discontent and labor fisticuffs via press release, perhaps no player has been subject to a stranger market than Moustakas.
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A 29-year-old player coming off a career-high 38 homers in 2017, a two-time All-Star with a World Series championship ring, Moustakas is still unemployed and seemingly without significant suitors. Most of the big-market clubs in need of a third baseman have filled those holes via trades and other free agents. His former club remains fixated on first baseman Eric Hosmer and less keen on investing money at third base.
“Based on the picture that we have right now, we’re prepared to go with Cheslor Cuthbert,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said on Tuesday. “Hunter Dozier is a possibility at third base. That’s the main competition there.
“Cheslor is not the caliber player that Mike is at this particular time. But we feel like it’s important to give him an opportunity to prove himself.”
The comments came one day after the New York Mets signed free agent Todd Frazier to a two-year, $17 million deal, removing another possible destination for Moustakas. Yet, the Royals’ philosophy has remained unchanged for most of the winter.
In November, Moore signaled the club’s desire to retain Hosmer, 28, as it transitioned into a rebuilding process and focused on restocking its farm system. As the Royals’ attention moved to Hosmer, the team braced to lose center fielder Lorenzo Cain and Moustakas.
The philosophy was based on multiple factors, club officials said. The Royals believed that Hosmer, one year younger than Moustakas, could better fit into a rebuild that would take two to three years to get off the ground. It also believed the prices for Cain and Moustakas would be exorbitant.
To spend money on a homegrown free agent at the start of a rebuild could make sense if club officials could also envision gaining value toward the back end of the contract. Moustakas and Cain, set to turn 32 in April, made less sense in the long term. The Royals also had internal options at third base, including Cuthbert, 25, who filled in respectably in 2016, and Dozier, 26, a former first-round pick.
“We’ve made it very clear,” Moore said. “We do remain focused on Eric. But right now, we haven’t been too successful.”
Cain ultimately signed a five-year, $80 million deal last month with the Milwaukee Brewers after having little communication with the Royals this offseason. The deal represented the largest of this sluggish winter and also netted the Royals a compensation pick after the first round. The move benefited both sides.
Moustakas, however, is still without a home after a long winter. The absence of a market for his services first surfaced in December, when the Los Angeles Angels signed free agent Zack Cozart of the Reds to fill a hole at third base. The Angels were long viewed as a favorite to land Moustakas, who grew up in the Los Angeles area.
But with the Angels out of the picture, others have followed. The San Francisco Giants traded for Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria. The Mets opted for Frazier, who commanded a contract worth less in dollars and years than the long-term deal Moustakas has sought. The Braves, once thought of as a possible destination, have remained quiet under new general manager Alex Anthopoulos. This is the market is 2018.
Moustakas batted .272 with a .314 on-base percentage and career highs in homers, slugging percentage (.521) and OPS (.835) last season. His overall value, however, was less impressive in an environment that saw homers being hit at record paces across the league. In 148 games, Moustakas was worth 1.8 wins above replacement, according to Baseball Reference, less than half of his career-high 4.4 WAR in 2015.
Put another way: One club might see Moustakas as an All-Star third baseman, a strong defensive player with the ability to hit 40 homers in the right ballpark. Another might see a player with a short track record of success, at least one major injury, and about to turn 30 in seven months.
Among clubs with a possible need at third base and big coffers, perhaps only the Yankees remain. But New York — like many big-market teams — is seeking to remain under the sport’s luxury tax and appears loathe to hand out long-term deals this winter, especially with Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Josh Donaldson set to become free agents next year.
Other clubs, sensing a potential bargain, could emerge as February continues. Then there is Moustakas’ former team, the Royals. For now, the market appears dry, and while Moore will not publicly close the book on a reunion, he has emphasized that Hosmer remains the priority.
“We’ll see,” Moore said. “Right now, we’re focused on rebuilding our farm system. We’re focused on managing our payroll in a more efficient way, and doing everything we can to build the most competitive team possible for 2018, within the payroll guidelines that we have.”