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Former Cubs reliever Justin Wilson signs with Mets

Yesterday, the Cubs signed reliever Brad Brach to a one-year, $4 million contract. 

It’s a great deal for the Cubs, who get a reliable, durable backend arm on a heavy discount. Normally, teams would be lauded for finding that much value in late January. 

This offseason is not normal though. In fact, the very definition of a normal offseason is probably a thing of the past. 

Consider some of Brach’s numbers from last season, when he split time between the Orioles and the Braves:

– 62.2 IP, 11.1 K-BB%, 1.60 WHIP, 3.59 ERA, 3.67 FIP

Now consider some of the same numbers from another 32-year old right handed reliever the Cubs signed a year ago, Steve Cishek: 

– 70 IP, 17.4 K-BB%, 1.04 WHIP, 2.18 ERA, 3.45 FIP

Cishek unquestionably had a better year, though the discrepancy between his ERA and FIP indicates luck played a not-insignificant role. 

Their career numbers are even closer, with only a year of service time separating the two. The main difference? While the Cubs gave Brach $4 million over one season this year, they gave Cishek $13 million over two seasons just a year ago.  Is 8 innings more of similar production worth double the guaranteed years and more than double the guaranteed money?

And while it’s not a perfect comparison, the discrepencies yet again highlight one of MLB’s largest issues: the suspiciously cold free agent market. When the only significant contract to be handed out as of January 25th is a 4-year deal for AJ Pollock, in a class that includes Byrce Harper and Manny Machado, something is up. 

“Yeah I mean it’s weird. Real weird,” Kris Bryant said. “Two of the best players in the game and they have very little interest in them from what I hear. It’s not good. It’s going to have to change. I know a lot of the other players are pretty upset about it, so I don’t know. We’ll see how it goes.”

A large contingency of vocal Cubs fans have voiced displeasure with how the team’s approached free agency this season. While some of it is fair (can you really call Daniel Descalso a marquee signing?) and some isn’t (they did win 95 games last year, after all), one thing is certain: the cold market, and apparent salary suppresion, is a league-wide issue. 

“As a player, from our perspective, it does feel boring, it does seem like nothing’s happening — and it kind of feels like for no reason,” Jason Heyward said. “For someone like myself, on Year 10, you know what kind of money [teams have] and they know what kind of players they’re going to get when [they] sign these guys. It’s just one of those things where MLB is trying to be business savvy. I get it, I understand it and respect it. But at the same time I feel like if anything, as players, we’ve got to be on top of that and know our value and understand it going into the process. If you’re not a step ahead of it, you need to be.”  

There’s a looming work stoppage on the horizon, whether anyone in the game wants to acknolwedge as much or not. There’s something noticeably nefarious about the way that the last two offseasons have unfolded, and it’s clear the days of owners handing over blank checkbooks are over. From all accounts, it figures to be an ugly one too – the last MLB work stoppage in 1994 literally sunk an entire franchise. Players like Heyward and Bryant are keeping a keen eye on not just the looming litigation battles, but how they’ll affect the future of the sport. 

“As a kid,” Heyward added, “if I were watching baseball, and I was seeing all these things unfold, I’d probably question if I wanted to play baseball when I grew up.” 

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