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Mike Moustakas hit a Kansas City Royals record 38 home runs in 2017, making his second All-Star team. Even at age 29, it seemed a prime time to enter the free agent market, where in Major League Baseball’s salary structure Moustakas could expect to max out his future earnings.
But this grimmest of off-seasons for free agents hit Moustakas hardest. Thursday, he agreed to a one-year deal to return to Kansas City. He not only missed out on multiyear riches, but will take a cut in guaranteed salary – from $8.7 million to $6.5 million – in 2018.
While Moustakas may not check all the boxes teams look for – his career .305 on-base percentage leaves something to be desired – he’s by almost any measures an above-average third baseman and a crucial member of the Royals’ consecutive AL pennant winners.
In this winter, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and thus will earn less money than players objectively less valuable than him.
Here’s Moustakas’ final stat line in 2017: .272 average, 38 homers, 85 RBI, a .314 on-base percentage, .835 OPS, 116 OPS-plus and 1.8 Wins Above Replacement.
And here’s a sampling of players – some inferior, some around his level – guaranteed more money than Moustakas in 2018, based on USA TODAY Sports’ salary database:
Freddy Galvis, Padres shortstop ($6.825 million): .255, 12 homers, .309 OBP, 83 OPS-plus, 1.3 WAR in 2017.
Adam Ottavino, Rockies reliever ($7 million): 2-3, 5.06 ERA, 1.63 WHIP, 0.3 WAR.
Junichi Tazawa, Marlins reliever ($7 million): 3-5, 5.69 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, -0.7 WAR.
Jason Castro, Twins catcher ($8 million): .242, 10 homers, .333 OBP, .720 OPS, 93 OPS-plus, 2.5 WAR.
Jedd Gyorko, Cardinals third baseman ($9 million): .272, 20 homers, 67 RBI, .341 OBP, .813 OPS, 112 OPS-plus, 3.6 WAR.
Matt Wieters, Nationals catcher ($10.5 million): .225, 10 homers, 52 RBI, .288 OBP, 63 OPS-plus, -0.6 WAR.
Edinson Volquez, Marlins starter ($13 million): 4-8, 4.19 ERA, 1.42 WHIP.
Chase Headley, Padres third baseman ($13 million): .273, 12 homers, 61 RBI, .352 OBP, .758 OPS, 100 OPS-plus, 1.8 WAR.
While Moustakas’ situation and those of the above players may vary – some are in the cocoon of arbitration-eligibility, others were free agents, others on long-term deals – none of the players hit the open market as primed as he was to cash in.
Headley’s example is particularly instructive. He was 30 – a year older than Moustakas now – when he reached free agency after the 2014 season.
At that point, Headley’s career slash line was .265/.347/.409, with an OPS-plus of 113. He signed a four-year, $52 million deal with the New York Yankees.
Moustakas is at .272/.305/.425, and an OPS-plus of 96. Moustakas did close with a flourish, however, earning All-Star berths his final two full seasons and, from 2015-2017, posting an .824 OPS and 117 OPS-plus.
Meanwhile, annual revenues in baseball have risen from $9 billion in 2014 to more than $10 billion in 2017.
Sure, players in their late 20s and early 30s are valued differently – and viewed more warily – now than then. And the most recent collective bargaining agreement created further disincentives for clubs to spend on veteran talent.
But in hindsight, Headley returned about two wins per season entering the final year of his $13 million per season deal, hardly killing the Yankees. They traded him to San Diego in December.
Is Moustakas “worth” as much as Headley was then, viewed through the modern lens? Maybe not.
Is he worth 88% less guaranteed money? That answer seems obvious.