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Original Issue

CASH IN HAND

Jacob deGrom is just one star (see also: Trout, Arenado, Sale) who passed up free agency. Should players be reassured—or worried?

Ah, the sounds of spring: the thwack of the ball in the catcher's mitt, the crackle of static between at bats on the radio ... and the groan of leather when an owner opens his wallet to offer a contract extension to a star. After a winter in which free agency stagnated and baseball's compensation model appeared irreparable, practically each March day brought news that an excellent player had re-signed for huge money. Angels centerfielder Mike Trout got $430 million over 12 years; Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado $260 million over eight; Red Sox ace Chris Sale $145 million over five and shortstop Xander Bogaerts $132 million over seven; Mets righthander Jacob deGrom $137.5 million over five; Cardinals first baseman Paul Goldschmidt $130 million over five; Astros third baseman Alex Bregman $100 million over five and righty Justin Verlander $66 million over two; Cubs starter Kyle Hendricks $55.5 million over four; Rays lefty Blake Snell $50 million over five; and White Sox outfielder Eloy Jiménez $48 million over six (before his first MLB at bat!).

But did this wave of re-signings (which also washed away much of the hype that would have accompanied the next two free-agent classes) really herald an economic boom for players? Or did it just emphasize the sorry state that nonstars are in? Since 1975 free agency has been Valhalla for veterans, remunerating them richly—often too richly. The players who got top dollar set the market for the rest, and that rising tide lifted all boats.

The story of the past two offseasons is that top players' comp now bears little on the salaries of the merely good. (For the second straight season, the mean MLB salary has dropped.) There's wisdom in teams saving splurges for the elite. So long as teams spend that way, though, labor war will continue to loom in 2021, no matter how much owners lavish on stars.