TEMPE, Ariz. – You drive all over the state of Florida, fly to Phoenix, venture to spring-training camps all around the Valley, and suddenly you find it, the epicenter of baseball’s new wacky world.
The Los Angeles Angels clubhouse is where you’ll find an All-Star who was forced to switch positions twice to even sign a free-agent contract, a premier outfielder who made the shrewd move to pass up free agency, a player who considered retirement because of the market conditions, another who was dumped by the new wave of tanking teams and faces free agency this winter, and a forgotten slugger.
Say hello to Zack Cozart, Justin Upton, Chris Young, Ian Kinsler and Chris Carter.
They represent baseball’s landscape in which a former Cy Young winner, Jake Arrieta, celebrated his 32nd birthday Tuesday in Austin, Texas, instead of at a spring training camp; a 29-year old slugger, Mike Moustakas, who broke a franchise record for homers last season might not even sign before June; and the National League saves leader, Greg Holland, who committed the triple-play faux pas of rejecting a player option, declining the qualifying offer and not accepting a contract offer.
Three weeks remain before opening day and more than 40 viable free agents remain unsigned, led by Arrieta, Moustakas and Holland.
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Arrieta, who could have returned to the Chicago Cubs if he accepted a contract less than the six-year, $126 million deal that Yu Darvish signed, still should wind up in the Washington Nationals’ opening-day rotation. The Nationals, who had 10 players represented by Scott Boras clients last season, have $61.25 million coming off the books next year simply with free agents Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Wieters. It’s the ideal fit for a team whose owners not only have the coziest relationship with Boras but are desperate to win a playoff series before Harper departs.
It’s possible that Holland lands in Washington as well, but GM Mike Rizzo insists they’ll stay with their current triumvirate of late-inning options, just like the St. Louis Cardinals. Holland rejected a $15 million player option at the season’s conclusion, declined a $17.4 million qualifying offer and didn’t accept the Rockies’ three-year offer early in the winter before they turned to Wade Davis. He’s the No. 1 target for any team that suddenly discovers they’re a closer short of contending.
Moustakas, who hit 38 homers last season for the Kansas City Royals, appeared to be an ideal fit for several teams, but no one wanted to surrender a second-round draft pick as compensation. So the Angels signed Cozart, the San Francisco Giants traded for Evan Longoria, and the New York Yankees acquired Brandon Drury, leaving Moustakas standing alone in the third-base market of musical chairs.
Suddenly, the likes of Drury, Matt Duffy (Tampa Bay), Johan Camargo (Atlanta) and Martin Prado (Marlins) have starting third base jobs, and Moustakas does not.
Little wonder he may now wait until after the June draft, when clubs won’t suffer the loss of a draft pick, and try again.
The Angels, who could use Arrieta and Holland if they suddenly were willing to cross the $197 million luxury tax threshold, and once had a burning need for Moustakas, too, epitomize baseball’s new wave of constructing teams.
This is a team that entered the off-season desperate for a third baseman and second baseman. So, what do the Angels do? Sign a free-agent All-Star shortstop who has never played another position in his career, telling him he’s being moved to second base, only to change their minds and switch him to third a few days later.
“It was a crazy market,’’ says Cozart, who signed a three-year, $38 million deal in December. “I wanted to stay at shortstop, obviously, but there weren’t a lot of contending teams who needed a shortstop. You look around the landscape of baseball, and it’s like the golden age of shortstops. And the winning teams all have shortstops for a long time.
“So we had all of these calls seeing if I was interested in playing second or third.’’
The Angels told Cozart they were moving him to second base and he was on his way to take his physical when GM Billy Eppler called him. He asked if he’d mind moving to third base. They were trying to acquire Kinsler from the Detroit Tigers.
“I knew it would make us a better team,’’ Cozart says, “so I agreed. Billy told me it was up to me, but I didn’t want to be the guy responsible for Kinsler not being here.
“I’m just glad I signed. Now, all I have to do is worry about getting a place in Irvine instead of worrying about who I’m going to play for. It’s frustrating seeing so many guys like Moustakas who can help teams, but are still not signed.’’
Kinsler, a four-time All-Star and Gold Glove winner, knows he could be in the same predicament next winter. He may still be one of the finest offensive second baseman in the game, hitting 50 home runs the last two seasons, but he’s also 35.
“I can’t believe how many guys are still out there,’’ Kinsler says. “And these teams are using compensation attached to them as an excuse. Who gives a (bleep)? So basically, you’re opposed to improving your club now so you can get a compensation pick, who probably won’t be in the big leagues for four or five years, and has only about 30% chance of even making it? They make it sound like it’s a terrible thing to sign a guy with this pick attached to them.
“It’s all eye-wash.’’
Upton, 30, a four-time All-Star who hit a career-high 35 homers and 109 RBI last season, wasn’t about to take the risk of the volatile free-agent market. He could have opted out of his contract, and gambled that someone would have paid him more than the four years and $86 million left on his deal.
Upton, who had only two teams, the Tigers and Atlanta Braves, willing to offer him more than $100 million two years ago when he hit free agency, stayed put. He wasn’t planning to opt out even if he stayed with the Tigers, but once the Angels acquired him, and offered an extra year and $20 million to stay, it was a no-brainer.
“It’s almost like you don’t want to be a free agent now,’’ Upton said, “almost like it’s a bad thing. That’s how they’re making a guy feel, even for the best players. It’s one thing if you’re not productive but it’s another thing if you’re productive and people don’t value you.
“It’s funky, just weird.’’
Young, 34, finished a two-year, $13 million deal with the Red Sox and ultimately accepted a one-year, $2 million guarantee from the Angels after camp opened.
Carter hit 41 home runs two seasons ago in Milwaukee, was non-tendered and received a $3.5 million deal in New York, but played his last major league game July 4 after the Yankees released him. He took a minor league deal with the Angels that will pay him $1.175 million if he makes the team.
Modest deals, to be sure, but it beats unemployment. Meanwhile, both players present little risk but some upside to the Angels, who seek their first playoff berth since 2014.
As it stands, they worked the system to perfection – dipping under the luxury tax threshold while improving their club and receiving a huge boost when Japanese two-way star Shohei Ohtani chose them to start his major league career.
A good deal for them. Less so for the players still trying to negotiate the new landscape.
“You used to think that free agency was the promised land,’’ says Cozart, an All-Star in his final season with the Cincinnati Reds. “You work hard for six years and maximize your value. That’s what we all believed.
“Then this year happened. It’s scary out there.’’