The Case of the Disappearing Franchise Player

Are franchise players a disappearing breed? (via Keith Allison, slgckgc, and Michelle Jay)

In the late hours of Aug. 31, 2017, with mere seconds left until the deadline, Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander was given a choice and very little time to make it. The choice was between staying with the team with which he had debuted, and with which he had spent 13 years establishing his legacy, or moving on to a franchise that was on the cusp of achieving greatness.

Verlander later told reporters, “It’s hard to put into words the emotions going on–from uprooting my family to everything you can imagine. Someone says, ‘You have 35, 40 minutes to decide. You know nothing about it. Go!’”

Ultimately, Verlander’s choice came down to which team could help him achieve his long-term goals. At 34 years old and with one rebound already in his career following a shaky season, Verlander chose to accept a trade to the Houston Astros with the hope he could finally win the World Series ring that had evaded him in 2006, 2012, 2013 and 2014. He wanted that milestone for himself and knew it wouldn’t come to him in Detroit, where the team was poised for a tear-down and rebuild.

So he said yes to Houston. In exchange, the Tigers received several players who would help bolster their flagging farm system. Verlander and the Astros went on to win the 2017 World Series. He got his ring after all, and the Astros seem set to make another run for the trophy in 2018.

Had Verlander been the only big name to be traded, it would have been newsworthy, but just a blip. A heartbreak for Tigers fans, certainly, but nothing to indicate an overall shift in how teams treat their stars. But Verlander seemed to be the first rumble of a franchise star trade avalanche. Soon it was obvious the Miami Marlins, under new ownership, had no interest in holding on to Giancarlo Stanton’s mammoth $295 million contract, even if it meant shipping off the reigning NL MVP.

Stanton, like Verlander, was a homegrown player. Stanton had been with the Marlins through a name change, represented them in four All-Star games, and claimed the NL MVP title in 2017 for, among other things, hitting 59 home runs. For the Marlins, a team that desperately needed star power to fill its seats, Stanton was a huge draw. At the end of the day, however, it became a question of money (and debt service) over man, and the team yielded to a rebuild, moving Stanton, and much of its established lineup, like Dee Gordon, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, as well.

It didn’t stop there. In the last weeks of December, the Tampa Bay Rays, who had claimed they were not rebuilding, traded their one established star, All-Star third baseman Evan Longoria, to the San Francisco Giants. In return, they received a pittance of prospects and the contract of Denard Span as an add-on.

The Giants, not content to take just one franchise face, then turned their attention to the Pittsburgh Pirates and made a deal for All-Star outfielder Andrew McCutchen. Like Verlander and Stanton, Longoria and McCutchen had worn only one uniform in their careers. Longoria even had accepted two team-friendly contract extensions, suggesting it was more important for him to stay with the Tampa club than test his luck in a lucrative free agent market.

What these teams are saying, effectively, by accepting these trades, is that the future gamble of intriguing prospects is more valuable to them than the certain draw of a star player. Of course, these players are not in their prime anymore; their heydey seasons are very likely behind them. To maximize return, it’s smart for teams to move them while they still hold some value.

What gets overlooked in this sort of calculated transaction, however, is the fan attachment to those stars, an oversight that can give the appearance that teams don’t care about their fan bases. In Tampa, where it can be difficult to lure fans to the Trop, the trade of Longoria seemed especially callous.

Ultimately, a winning team sees more fans in seats, sells more shirts, and inspires more season-ticket sales. Teams, wisely, are looking to build those winning franchises for the future by stocking their farm systems with as many quality young players as they can, hoping one is the future Clayton Kershaw or Mike Trout — even if doing so happens at the expense of a current Kershaw or Trout. It has become apparent teams are willing to take that risk, even if it means hurting fans in the meantime.

Wins first, always. Even if those wins are merely a glimmer of hope in ownership’s eyes.

For fans, this can lead to a feeling of bitterness towards the club, and moreso, confusion over precisely who makes up the team at all. Recently, amid rumors that 2016 Rookie of the Year pitcher Michael Fulmer might be on the trade market, the Tigers shipped out season tickets that featured no players on the packaging whatsoever, not even Miguel Cabrera, whose shine has become somewhat tarnished after battling several seasons of injury. While the promotional decision was made to ensure the packaging still was relevant when the season started — Fulmer’s image would later adorn the Tiger’s winter caravan bus— the message it sent to fans was clear: no stars here, sorry.

It’s actually incredibly rare for a player to make it through his whole career in one uniform, no matter how beloved he is by his home team. As of the 2017 season, among those who have played a minimum of 10 major league seasons, only 170 players managed to spend their entire careers with a single team. New Hall of Fame inductees Chipper Jones for the Braves and Alan Trammell for the Tigers (Veterans Committee inductee) were among them, playing 19 and 20 seasons each for their respective clubs. The Yankees have had 25 players spend their whole career in pinstripes, the highest of any team.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Those numbers should make fans feel better about the length of time they got to watch their most beloved stars play in one jersey. But knowing how rare a feat it is to be a franchise guy is hardly a balm for the broken baseball heart.

It also means the idea of teams truly maintaining franchise stars might be its own misconception. With fewer than 200 men playing on one team for an entire career, cases like those of Verlander, Stanton, and Longoria are far more the norm. We’re just noticing it to a greater degree now because more teams of late have been willing to cut ties with their long-term established stars, sometimes for good reason.

Teams are making the most out of their young up-and-coming talent, and they’re being much smarter about it in many ways. The Astros signed Jose Altuve to an incredibly club-friendly contract extension in 2013, betting wisely on his potential. The Rays signed phenom outfielder Kevin Kiermaier to a six-year extension worth a minimum $53.5 million, as they suspected his free agent value might far exceed what they could afford to pay. Given how exciting guys like Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger have been of late, there’s a good reason teams feel safe in letting go of the big stars. And given how readily fans rally to what’s new and exciting, perhaps owners are making a smart bet.

Teams wisely will hold onto those new and exciting players, but it seems there’s a lot less pull of late to keep them on once their cost begins to balloon. Fewer teams seem inclined to go past the competitive balance tax thresholds. What we’re going to come to see more and more of is existing large contracts being shuffled off whenever possible and teams latching onto club-friendly extensions to keep their stars playing for them. In some cases, players will choose to stay in a familiar environment rather than test the waters of free agency.

But even those kinds of deals don’t guarantee a player will stay with a franchise his whole career, as evidenced by the Rays’ trade of Longoria.

The executives in Tampa saw an opportunity to move Longoria for what they considered to be a fair return and a chance to add more talent to their already rich farm system. If one were to ignore that Longoria was the team’s “face,” the trade makes sense. It’s hard to imagine Longoria rising to new levels of superstardom in San Francisco. He likely already has had his best baseball. The same is true of McCutchen.

They will continue to remain names, potential draws, but it will be more for their past exploits than current ones. Verlander will excite Houston fans for another two seasons, but due in large part to the team’s continuing on-field success. Who’s to say we won’t see the Astros’ spark plug second baseman and undoubted franchise star, Altuve, featured in his own trade three or four years down the road, when the Astros’ window for further contention begins to close? It may feel impossible now, but as the tides of success ebb and flow, things can change.

What is clear is that teams seem less inclined to hold onto contracts for sentimental reasons. If there is value left in a star, he is sure to be fodder for a trade, and no level of fan devotion, or even amiable feelings between the player and management, can keep him safe forever.

If the era of the franchise star ever truly existed, this offseason has proven it is now dead. We are unlikely to see many players remain with the same team for the whole duration of their careers, either because of better offers in free agency or with trade deadline drama that shakes up the baseball world at midnight as August turns to September and the countdown to the postseason begins.

There will always be another Verlander, another Stanton, another Longoria. Perhaps one who can be held onto cheaply for a good long time. Or, at least, that’s what teams are betting on.

References and Resources

Ashley MacLennan is a writer and editor for the Detroit Tigers blog Bless You Boys, and deputy manager for the Tampa Bay Rays blog DRaysBay. Her writing has been featured at FanGraphs, and the Hardball Times, as well as on her own website 90 Feet From Home. Find her on Twitter @90feetfromhome
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4 years ago

Seems like a bit of an overreaction to an anomaly of an offseason….there’s still plenty of face-of-the-franchise guys around today: Votto, Yadi, Mauer, Braun, etc.

4 years ago
Reply to  RK

There are quite a few that at least have a decent chance. Of players who have already hit or will hit the 10 year mark in 2018, there are those 4, plus Wright, Zimmerman, Pedroia, Gordon, Andrus, Gardner, Felix, Wainwright and Kershaw

4 years ago
Reply to  Erik.T

Molina has an extremely good chance, since he’s stated he plans to retire at the end of his current contract. There’s also an extremely good chance for Wright but for a much more depressing reason.

Anyway, I agree that he’s overreacting to an anomaly. This has been the same story ever since the beginning of free agency. Franchise players are extremely rare, but they still happen from time to time. Aside from Chipper and Trammell, you still get guys like Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, and Derek Jeter (and even some lesser known players like Tom Pagnozzi) every now and then.

Dave T
4 years ago
Reply to  Lanidrac

Yes, I think there’s also a good chance that Pedroia and Alex Gordon are both done after their current contracts expire (2021 and 2019, respectively), so they’re likely to finish with one team.

It wouldn’t surprise me for Wainwright to retire after this year, so he could easily be another one.

John Autin
4 years ago

“The end of the franchise player” has been predicted ever since the dawn of free agency, but that phenomenon hasn’t changed all that much — partly because many folks overestimate its past prevalence.

Bobby Ayala
4 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Hard to overestimate its past prevalence though, because it was extremely prevalent. The vast majority of pre-free-agency hall of famers players their whole career with one MLB team.

4 years ago
Reply to  Bobby Ayala

226 elected major leaguers. Of those 59 played some or all of their careers during the free-agency era.
47 of them played for one team. Of those 16 played some or all of their careers during the free-agency era.

So pre free-agency 31 of 167 or 19% were one-team men.
Post free-agency 16 of 59 or 27% were one-team men.

*Did this hurriedly; may be out but one or two.

Fireball Fredmember
4 years ago

Is the key case here Pujols? He was a huge star, sure Hall-of-Famer, but the Cards let him go. And they were clearly right.

The Duke
4 years ago
Reply to  Fireball Fred

If you mean they offered him over $200 million to play out his career In St. Louis then yes I guess you can say they let him go. Pujols got a better and longer offer and left – simple as that

4 years ago

I can’t find the original Bill James article, but this article from Baseball-Reference cites it ( . . .

“But it seems to remain true today, just as Bill James wrote in the ’80s, that free agency has not profoundly impacted the number of long-career players who stay with one team.

One reason that James noted for this “surprising” finding is that, while free agency gives players the power to leave, long-term contracts and no-trade clauses gives them the power to stay with one team, and they exercise the latter choice perhaps more often than we cynical fans would assume.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen empirical evidence that the frequency of long-term one team players has actually declined since some mythical golden age.