Logan Morrison signed a deal with the Minnesota Twins over the weekend for one year and $6.5 million in guaranteed money, with incentives that could push the deal to two years and $16.5 million. In any other offseason, this would be a minor footnote, a deal that fills out a news-and-notes post with little significance for the player, the team, or the culture of baseball as a whole.
But this is no ordinary offseason. This is a winter in which a continual pattern of owner-front office intransigence has suppressed the overall value of free-agent contracts. This is a winter where Morrison is coming off a massive offensive breakout and was worth a real payday. Put those two things together, and Morrison’s deal is egregiously low. It is the most glaring example of this miserable winter for MLB players.
It’s not hard to argue that Morrison was underpaid. Last year with the Rays, he hit 38 home runs and 22 doubles in 601 plate appearances while walking 13.5 percent of the time. Those numbers drove a sterling 130 wRC+ batting line, which, accompanied by a measly .268 average on balls in play and an excellent .365 xwOBA, suggested that the campaign was no mere fluke. After a raft of injuries and subpar performances, Morrison had finally broken out at the age of 29.
A single three-win season doesn’t necessarily mean much for your future, especially if that figure is driven by the power tool and you’re on the verge of turning 30. That said, Morrison combined that power with a huge leap in plate discipline, a skill that won’t erode with time and will offer a critical offensive floor. Furthermore, Morrison joined the fly ball revolution. His average launch angle soared more than five degrees to 17.4 last year. His ground ball rate plummeted 11 points. He was the next in a long line of hitters — stretching from Jose Bautista to Daniel Murphy over the past decade — to sustain their production by adding loft.
Morrison may have never lived up to the initial hype of his prospect status with the Marlins, but he was never less than a league-average hitter. He has now found a couple tricks to push him past that… and keep him productive as he ages. Fangraphs thinks he’ll be worth 1.4 fWAR in 2018; PECOTA thinks he’ll be worth 1.1 WARP. That feels low to me. If Morrison can stay healthy, he could reasonably produce four or five wins of value over the next three years. A three-year contract would pay out at about $45 million.
That’s probably high. MLB Trade Rumors came in with a three-year, $36 million price tag. Dave Cameron, formerly of Fangraphs, predicted two years and $24 million. Both might come in a shade low for my taste, but it would be hard to argue too much with those figures, given Morrison’s age, track record, and the limited market for first basemen.
Instead, Morrison could be back on the market in eight months with only $6.5 million to show for it. His second-year team option vests if he amasses at least 600 plate appearances, but if manager Paul Molitor and front office heads Derek Falvey and Thad Levine prefer to keep Joe Mauer at first base and move Miguel Sano to DH, Morrison may not get the playing time he needs to stay in Minnesota next year. Reports suggest that the incentives are “reachable,” but we don’t know what they are yet.
This contract stinks. Morrison is playing for a contender, but one that may not be able to find enough playing time for him, and which paid a price for him that justifies a pine riding. The incentive-laden deal feels more like an NFL contract than one from the league whose commitment to guaranteed compensation in free agency was once the best in sports. Morrison, given his age, history, and relatively brief time as a star, may not have been worth really big dollars, but he was worth more than this.
Some have thrown around the word “collusion” this winter as a potential explanation for what has been going on. Players outside the top position players on the market (and Yu Darvish) have all seen their earnings come underneath what their future production would suggest. Teams across the board (aside from the Angels) have dug their heels in, claiming that the market is a one-off, that the talent level isn’t as strong as other winters, that their analytics teams are better at evaluating players, that they just can’t afford big contracts when they’re operating in small markets, etc. There may not be collusion. One can never ignore, however, that every single one of these teams can afford these players at their market rates, and are instead snapping them up on contract amounts beneath their analytically determined value.
Baseball deserves better than this. Logan Morrison deserves better than this. The Twins were committed to spending this winter… but I guess that was only true when they felt they had to. Now, they are just observing the bottom line and Jim Pohlad’s quarterly returns on investments.
If this is the new normal, baseball is in trouble.