When Charlie Blackmon surveyed the options for the next half-decade of his life and career, he kept coming back to the same place: Colorado. Only 5½ months separated him from free agency, and yet Blackmon had zero desire to go on some sort of vision quest to find the biggest pot of gold at the end of the biggest rainbow. For Blackmon, feel is far more important than look, something to which his beard attests.
It’s important to understand that when looking at the new contract Blackmon signed Wednesday with the Colorado Rockies that guarantees him $108 million over the next six seasons. “Great deal,” a rival agent said, aware that after the free agent freeze of 2017-18 that Blackmon was exactly the sort of player who might have found himself in limbo this upcoming winter in spite of his MVP-caliber numbers.
In his favor: Charlie Blackmon is an excellent baseball player today. And in the past, that was enough for teams to overlook other factors. Like the fact that Blackmon would be hitting the market at 32 years old. Or the reality that teams would factor in his age, assume a move from center field to a corner-outfield spot and dock their offers accordingly. Or the anchor of the qualifying offer, which the Rockies surely would have hung on him. Or, perhaps most problematic along with his age, his dreadful home-road splits that managed to worsen last season.
Were Blackmon prideful or greedy, he could have seen the seven-year, $126 million deal Jayson Werth signed in 2011 and set that as a baseline. Blackmon happens to be a pragmatist, and he and his agents at ACES, a group known for reading the market well and striking savvy deals, recognized what an official with strong knowledge of the game’s economics said about the Werth contract.
“That deal’s never gonna happen again,” he said. “The world has fundamentally changed in the last seven years.”
The question, of course, becomes less about Blackmon in that case and more about where the dollars that in the past might have gone to him go. Because over the last few offseasons, teams have made it abundantly clear the answer is not older players. It’s what makes Blackmon’s deal a plus in others’ eyes: not only does he lock in $14 million this year and $21 million a year for the three after that, he has player options for $21 million in 2022 and $10 million (with up to $8 million more in escalators) for 2023, during which he’ll turn 37 in the middle of the summer.
Teams are remarkably loath to offer position players multiyear deals that stretch into the late 30s anymore. Adrian Beltre and Yadier Molina, both team icons and likely Hall of Famers, got them. So did Chase Utley – $1 million a year for two years. Ben Zobrist is the only free agent in the last three years to sign a large long-term deal that includes his 37th birthday.
Look at this winter. The closest comparison to Blackmon is Lorenzo Cain, who got five years and $80 million from ages 32 to 36. Eric Hosmer’s deal ends when he’s 35. Jose Altuve, J.D. Martinez and Carlos Santana’s expire at 34. This is not a pattern. It’s a new reality.
One, mind you, that could be tested by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado this offseason as they enter free agency at 26 and set records with their contracts. And one Josh Donaldson, who turns 33 years old the day before the Winter Meetings begin, will try to defy. As fascinating as Harper and Machado’s free agency will be, Donaldson’s represents something different altogether, a challenge to teams who want an elite player but cringe at locking up anyone into his late 30s.
The answer to the earlier question – where does the money not going to older players go? – is one with existential import, because the answer could be the fulcrum upon which the game’s future depends. The official believes there will be a greater number of players who follow the Jake Arrieta model: a shorter-term deal with a higher average annual value. Similarly, teams could ante up more in pre-free agency deals, which typically have undervalued the contributions of the players offered.
Over the winter, the Minnesota Twins made an effort to lock up a number of their young, pre-arbitration players with long-term deals, including outfielder Byron Buxton, outfielder Max Kepler and pitcher Jose Berrios, sources familiar with the talks told Yahoo Sports. The offers were rebuffed.
Among the biggest surprises of the offseason was the relative calm by under-control players, who didn’t panic at the prospect of a grim free agent market going forward and sign an undermarket deal. Only three players – the Cardinals’ Paul DeJong, the Diamondbacks’ Ketel Marte and the Phillies’ Scott Kingery – have signed pre-arbitration extensions this year.
Blackmon, of course, is in a different stratosphere – figuratively and literally. His Coors Field swing has throughout his career been a thing of beauty, with a batting average 82 points higher than on the road and an OPS 232 points higher. The splits last season were even more stark: .391/.466/.773 at home, .276/.337/.447 away. That’s 455 OPS points.
In this era, with a market this unpredictable, it’s as much a white flag as it is a red flag, because every team with which Blackmon would meet, every official with whom his agents would speak, would use it as a cudgel, a leverage point, something to crank down his value, enough for any man to cry uncle. The Rockies did the opposite. They embraced Blackmon in the same way he embraced them. His age mattered but wasn’t a nonstarter. His splits weren’t anything unusual. He was a homegrown talent, a star who blossomed in purple and black. And after long-term deals didn’t exactly pan out for the two franchise players who came before Blackmon — Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki — they’re hopeful that third time’s a charm – and fourth, too, if they can somehow convince star third baseman Nolan Arenado to forgo free agency.
For Blackmon, it’s a good fit, a good deal, a good glimpse into what may be ahead for the sport. If the redistribution of money toward younger players happens organically and those like Charlie Blackmon still are compensated well enough, perhaps the drumbeat of a labor war will fade. If not – if the money flows instead into owners’ pockets – it will only intensify and harden the players that much more.
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