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A Bear Market for Moose

Mike Moustakas is a free agent, and, like the seemingly 10,000 other players, remains unsigned. Along with JD Martinez and former Royals teammate Eric Hosmer, he’s considered one of the top available position players available and is discussed as a guy who could land a multi-year contract somewhere north of $70 million. But “Moose” is special in that he’s especially unfortunate to be a free agent right now.

Let’s play a game. Each of these stat lines from 2017 is an active third baseman, which of these players is worth at least $17.4 million per season AND a draft pick?

1) .260/.367/.461, 117 wRC+, 4.1 WAR
2) .249/.323/.450, 106 wRC+, 3.5 WAR
3) .273/.349/.513, 119 wRC+, 3.4 WAR
4) .272/.341/.472, 112 wRC+, 2.5 WAR
5) .248/.357/.487 111 wRC+. 2.5 WAR
6) .272/.314/.521, 114 wRC+, 2.2 WAR

Did you guess player #6? Because that player with the acceptable-but-definitely-not-amazing 2.2 WAR last season is in fact Mike Moustakas. The others in this group? In order: Eugenio Suarez, Kyle Seager, Travis Shaw, Jedd Gyorko, and Jake Lamb. Solid players, but not exactly the centerpieces of their respective franchises. To get a sense Moustakas’s production in comparable dollar value, those five players COMBINED to earn $18.71 million total in 2017, just a notch (in MLB contract terms) above the qualifying offer Moose already turned down.

In fact, that $17.4 million Moose declined would have given him the 6th highest annual salary among all third basemen in 2018, landing right in between Nolan Arenado ($17.75 mil) and free-agent-to-be Manny Machado ($16 mil). In other words, Moustakas wants top-5-player-at-his-position type money, a category to which he clearly doesn’t belong. For instance, last year among third basemen, Arenado and Machado ranked 4th and 14th in WAR, compared to Moustakas alllll the way down at 22nd. His numbers don’t look much better for offensive rating (20th) or abysmal defensive rating (79th) either. As far as BsR is concerned, he was the second worst 3B on the basepaths all year with an atrocious -5.4 rating, only stumbling ahead of the notoriously rock-footed Asdrubal Cabrera (sidenote here: c’mon Mets, the joke’s over).

Compared to one of the guys who will fill a previously open 3B role for an expected Moustakas bidder, Evan Longoria, Moose looks like an even more remarkable bust. Despite overall lackluster offensive numbers, .261/.313/.424 96 wRC+, Longo still managed a higher WAR (2.5) as a result of his respectable ratings among 3B in defense (14th) and BsR (13th). To top it off he’s “only” making $13.5 million next year, making him a significant bargain over what it would cost to sign Moustakas despite the moderate drop in offensive production, especially considering the relative gains in defense and baserunning.

As the Giants did have to part with top prospect Christian Arroyo to complete the deal, this is actually a solid baseline from which to compare Moose. Would most teams give out a Longoria-sized contract and a draft pick to acquire Moustakas? No? How about for even more money? Still no? Shocking.

So who is even around for Moustakas to sign with? Someone has to want his 38 home runs, right? Well…

The market for third basemen was actually fairly robust in the onset of the offseason, but as we’ve gotten deeper into winter, it seems as though just about everyone has filled the role or spent their money elsewhere. iInept orpower-needyy teams with hopes to compete, such as the Angels (signed Zack Cozart), Giants (traded for Evan Longoria), and Mets (signed Todd Frazier), have filled voids. Similarly, teams like the Yankees, Cardinals, and Phillies were reported to show some interest, but have all since opted to spend their money elsewhere, adding Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna, and Carlos Santana, respectively.

Of course, any team would love to unilaterally add another 30+ homeruns to their stat sheet, but in this modern homerun happy era of baseball, dingers aren’t really all that hard to find. The market is still saturated with available niche power hitting corner guys with higher walk rates such as Morrison, Duda, Carter, Napoli, Reynolds, and Lind, most of which will likely provide greater on field value per dollar spent than Moose will. Additionally, the successes of teams like the Cubs, Astros, Rockies, Diamondbacks, Red Sox, and Indians to find and develop premier young, inexpensive power hitters has further strained a market that in the past been governed by whichever available name was the most prolific.

Then of course there’s the two elephants in the room: Machado and Donaldson.

The two soon-to-be free agents are certainly affecting this year’s free agent crop, but no one has lost more future money as a result of their impending free agency than Moutsakas. Not only are Machado and Donaldson much more highly touted as all around third basemen, being both offensive difference makers and defensive wizards, they’re going to cost their future signatory teams a fortune to bring onboard, factors which are extremely limiting to Moose’s potential suitors. Just the potential to sign one of the two titans next offseason (or the likes of Bryce Harper, Charlie Blackmon, Daniel Murphy, Andrew McCutchen, and many more!) affects how a multitude of teams are using their dollars this winter. Teams don’t want to sign a hitter to a massive, long-term contract if there are better options next season around the diamond, and if a they plan on expanding their payroll in future seasons, they’ll need to plan to get under the luxury tax for this coming one. Thus despite the availability of funds for teams like the Yankees and Phillies, the incentive to sign someone now just isn’t there. Combine this economic sentiment with Moustakas’s on field production (or comparatively lack there of) and draft pick compensation, and you’ve found a perfect storm of free agency limbo.

Ok, so what’s the field actually look like then? Somebody’s gotta want this guy. Who out there is willing to shell out a multi-year, $70mil+ contract, and give up a draft pick to do it?

Well there are only three teams without obvious opening day starting third baseman that I can tell: the Yankees, Royals, and Braves. Yankees will more than likely look elsewhere for a cheaper, single-season solution, as they look to stay under the luxury tax for 2018 before throwing the bus at Machado in the offseason. Moustakas could opt to return to the Royals, but they are much more intent on resigning Hosmer to a long-term deal. The Braves have an opening and the funds but they don’t seem to be in compete mode for the next few seasons, so it’s doubtful that they’ll make a free agent splash like Moose unless its a deal for 5+ years.

There is always the option of signing a one-year deal with someone, but how many teams are willing to give up a draft pick for one year of a guy? The correct answer is no one, especially if the on field production is shaky to begin with. There is the possibility that the Royals come out with a one-year deal, as they of course wouldn’t have to forfeit a draft pick, but that doesn’t appear to be a part of the Royals’ long term strategy. As they dive into full fledged rebuild mode, the Royals are looking to get younger, stock picks, and cut costs. So it makes sense to sign someone like Eric Hosmer to a long term deal, but very little sense to give out a massive long term contract to a guy they don’t view as a centerpiece of a franchise. There just isn’t much motivation for a team with little anticipation to compete this year to go out and overpay for one season of an overrated niche power guy with a low walk rate, forgoing a future pick in the process.

Moose probably doesn’t have much interest in a one-year deal anyway, regardless of the salary. Though it would undoubtedly benefit him to re-enter free agency next year without the compensatory pick attached to him, as a player can only receive a qualifying offer once, the notion of having to compete with Machado, Donaldson, Murphy and others in next year’s market is less than enticing. Being at best the 4t- ranked free agent at your position, especially when the teams losing the top 3 will likely look for in house options to fill the vacated roles, is not a recipe for a big contract. Because of this, there’s little reason to think that next year’s market will be any more advantageous for Moustakas, especially if his peripheral stats stay steady through next year.

Thus it’s increasingly looking as though the most likely path forward for Moose is in the Todd Frazier 2-year deal mold, but the lingering questions of with whom and for how much remain murky. Frazier signed for just $17 mil total over those two years, well below the three-year, $42-million deal he was projected to received, as he fell victim to many of the same analytical obstacles plaguing Moustakas. However, despite the lower projected price tag, Frazier’s .213/.344/.428 slash line, 108 wRC+, and 3.0 WAR in 2017 actually parallels quite closely to Moose’s offensive production, and his positive defensive rating (10th among 3B) clearly sets him apart. Here it becomes increasingly apparent why the Mets, yet another team previously thought to be interested in Moustakas, opted for his free agent alternative. A slight downturn in homeruns, in exchange for comparable production, better defense, and much less money is far too sweet of a deal to overlook.

So yes, Moustakas, the Scott Boras client who turned down a qualifying offer, whom MLB Trade Rumors projected to receive a $85mil/5year contract at the start of the offseason, who will be just 29 years and 199 days old come opening day, can’t seem to find a job. And, well, honestly, would you pay the man? Teams are too analytically savvy nowadays and every MLB executive has access to Fangraphs. If I’m Scott Boras I have the Royals and Braves on speed dial and I’m calling them every hour in the hopes of making magic happen. But if I’m Mike Moustakas, I’m investing in a really comfy couch and fine-tuning my March Madness bracket.