MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Emerging trends slowing free-agent spending

Clubs focusing on premier pitching, youth and hard data as they look to add impact

Emerging trends slowing free-agent spending

This is awkward, isn't it?

Spring Training camps open in mere days, yet nearly 70 big league free agents are still looking for a job, or even the opportunity to compete for a job.

This was an unusually deep free-agent class, and it has been an abnormally slow-moving free-agent market. But even within the context of those circumstances, not many of these guys expected to be here -- or, rather, nowhere -- at this stage, in which the Hot Stove has cooled considerably.

• Hot Stove Tracker

The extent of the February unemployment dilemma demands a deeper understanding of what is going on. Because contrary to what some might think, this is not some vast conspiracy of staunch stinginess.

Rather, this is the game responding to some interesting -- or obvious -- trends, often (unfortunately) at the expense of the experienced.

Now, for three remaining free agents -- Dexter Fowler, Ian Desmond and Yovani Gallardo -- it's no secret what's happening. As was the case with Howie Kendrick -- who had to take a two-year, $20 million deal with the Dodgers in which half of his money is deferred without interest -- their decision to turn down a $15.8 million qualifying offer has turned out to be a regrettable one at a time when teams, rightly or wrongly, place such a high value on Draft picks and the Draft bonus allotments associated with them. Perhaps this is something that will be addressed in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

The effects of qualifying offers

But there are three reasons why the rest of the market is still so crowded. Let's delve into them:

1. The real money goes to premier pitching.

Let's run though the list of guys who got P-A-I-D paid this offseason. I'm talking about the nine-figure contract guys.

David Price (seven years, $217 million)
Zack Greinke (six years, $206.5 million)
Jason Heyward (eight years, $184 million)
Chris Davis (seven years, $161 million)
Justin Upton (six years, $132.7 million)
Johnny Cueto (six years, $130 million)
Jordan Zimmermann (five years, $110 million)

Seven players, four of whom are starting pitchers. There's a saying in the game that There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, and the Tommy John surgery epidemic and general attrition rates add credence to the TINSTAPP theory. You might draft the next Price, but the odds of him staying healthy and maxing out his potential development are generally stacked against you.

So maybe it makes sense that established starting studs were such a prized commodity in this particular marketplace. Heck, the next three-highest contracts beyond this list also went to starting pitchers (Jeff Samardzija, Wei-Yin Chen and Mike Leake).

Generally speaking, premier starting pitching was the only place teams were willing to splurge this offseason.

2. Ageism is real -- and perhaps justifiable.

Players in their 30s are being evaluated different than they once were.

Because we've already established that quality starting pitchers got paid this offseason, I'm going to limit most of what follows to position players.

Just for the sake of discussion, let's define one Win Above Replacement as a minimal/marginal impact on a team's fortunes and everything north of 1.0 as worthwhile, OK? Well, according to Baseball Reference's WAR calculations, 25.1 percent of position players achieving 1.1 WAR or more in 2015 were older than 30. A decade earlier, that percentage was 34.2.

So basically, a decade ago, one in three players north of 30 were delivering something resembling a quality season. Now, it's more like one in four. And this would probably be a good time to point out that the only remaining position players who aren't north of 30 are Desmond, Fowler and Austin Jackson.

Fowler's solo homer

It's no secret what's going on here: The crackdown on performance-enhancing drugs has impacted aging curves in a profound way. In 2003 (the last season before testing with penalties went into effect), the average age of a player who finished in the top 25 in OPS+ was 30.56. Last year, it was 28.8.

You know how many teams were led in the Baseball Reference-calculated Wins Above Replacement tally by a player 25 years or younger? Eleven out of 30. Two more clubs received their highest position-player WAR tally from a player that young, and two more beyond that had a WAR leader who was 26 or younger.

And by the way, though four outright rebuild situations in the NL (in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Atlanta) might hurt the market for established veterans, it's not just the rebuilding teams that have an excuse to go with the younger player. A decade ago, the average age of a player on a postseason team was 30.6. Last year, it was 28.7.

This is increasingly a young man's game.

3. You can't quantify experience, but you can quantify everything else.

But even if teams aren't using WAR, exactly, by this point all or most of them have their own proprietary means for evaluating players and projecting their output. The cold, hard data is likely not kind to many of those still available.

Steamer, a projection system based on past performance and statistically comparable players, has projected WAR tallies (available at FanGraphs) for all the remaining free agents. The only guys who rate at or above our aforementioned 1.1 mark are as follows:

• Yovani Gallardo: 1.8
Mark Buehrle: 1.6
• Dexter Fowler: 1.6
• Ian Desmond: 1.4
Juan Uribe: 1.2
• Austin Jackson: 1.2
David Freese: 1.1
Josh Johnson: 1.1
Justin Masterson: 1.1

That's the entire list. It includes the three compensation guys, as you might suspect. It also includes Johnson, whose health is a constant question, and Buehrle, who is pondering retirement.

Uribe's pinch-hit homer

Beyond that, Uribe has drawn legitimate interest from clubs with third-base at-bats to offer, but none of them have been willing to pay him the $3 million he's reportedly requesting. Jackson's market has been complicated by the continued availability of Fowler, Freese's by the continued availability of Uribe and Masterson's by his 5.79 ERA over the past two years.

Anyway, all of these guys are so close to the 1.0 WAR mark that it's hard to rate their expected contributions as anything more than marginal. And remember, the above is a small percentage of the remaining free-agent class.

This doesn't mean people don't surprise or exceed projections. We see a lot of that in this beautiful, unpredictable game. This is just meant to demonstrate that reasonable analysis can conclude that, among the wealth of free agents still available, there is a very, very limited amount of projected impact to be added.

Teams would prefer to just go with the younger, cheaper in-house option. And the statistical trends validate that idea.

Anthony Castrovince is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.