Feels like every other column you’ve read lately has started with a line about how this offseason’s Hot Stove has moved at a glacial pace.
The biggest free agents are still on the market, as you know. J.D. Martinez is looking for his $200 million deal. Eric Hosmer seems to be still looking for a landing spot on a team not using the word “rebuilding” in its mission statement. Top starters Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish are still trying to figure out where they’ll pitch next year, and next-tier starters Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn are waiting for contenders to decide it’s worth paying for a quality No. 3 guy.
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And it’s not just slow for the guys at the top of SN’s list of the Top 101 free agents this offseason. The signing pace has been tedious at all levels of the free-agent market (unless you’re a reliever, of course). Trades haven’t exactly been flying around, either. Three of the biggest trades of the offseason happened solely because the new ownership group in Miami is desperate to shed payroll quickly, which is why Giancarlo Stanton is now in New York, why Dee Gordon is in Seattle and why Marcel Ozuna is in St. Louis. And the other major deal happened almost solely because Evan Longoria’s 10-and-five veto power was about to kick in, and the Rays had to trade him while they still had the upper hand.
Aside from those trades, mostly crickets.
I was curious, so I went back five years, to the 2012-13 offseason, and counted transactions on Baseball-Reference’s list (for the November numbers, I started counting after the early-in-the-month mass announcements of players who officially became free agents). I included free-agent signings, trades, waiver claims and contracts purchased. I did not include transactions noting that players were picked in the Rule 5 draft, or players listed when they were declared free agents. Look at the difference.
— 134 November transactions
— 196 December transactions
— 48 January transactions (through Jan. 7)
378 total transactions
— 60 November transactions
— 128 December transactions
— 10 January transactions (through Jan. 7)
198 total transactions
Yeah. Much, much slower overall pace.
So why the difference? Let’s look at a few possible reasons.
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1. Luxury tax concerns
On one hand, this doesn’t seem to impact many franchises, considering only six teams had to pay the luxury tax in 2017 — the Dodgers, Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox, Cubs and Giants. But the two salary behemoths, the Dodgers and Yankees, have made it very clear they’re intent on getting below the 2018 luxury tax number ($197 million), and that’s impacted their approach to the free-agent market. To this point, neither team has been active even though there are certainly free agents who fit their needs. They’re content to sit and wait, figuring it’s more important to get under that $197 million number than it is to add a high-priced starter. The Red Sox might still go over in 2018, especially if they wind up with Martinez, but they don’t want to go way over, where the penalties are higher. Seems a likely reason they re-signed Mitch Moreland at first base instead of ponying up for Eric Hosmer, who seemed like a perfect fit.
But another thing about teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and Tigers (because they’re rebuilding) not being involved is this: Agents can’t use them to force other teams into quicker offers/decisions. They can’t say, “You’d better give Alex Cobb $70 million today because the Yankees might give him $80 million tomorrow.” That’s just an example, of course, not a thing we know actually happened. And that goes all the way down the line, from guys like Arrieta and Darvish to guys like Howie Kendrick and Austin Jackson to guys like Matt Garza and Rajai Davis. It might not be a primary factor, but it certainly is a factor.
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2. Patient front offices
Because there are so many options still available on the market, teams can afford to be choosy. You need a starting pitcher or two? Arrieta and Darvish are available for a pretty penny, but so are Lynn, Cobb and Andrew Cashner, and so are Jason Vargas, Jeremy Hellickson and Jaime Garcia, and so are R.A. Dickey, Wade Miley and Chris Tillman. Is it better to spend $150 million on just Arrieta or Darvish than to spend $150 million total on Cobb and Lynn? Or is it better to spend $150 million on Arrieta/Darvish in December instead of waiting until late January, hoping that price drops into the $120 million range, knowing there are lots of other not-so-bad secondary options who will certainly be available on the market?
Make no mistake, part of the patience is because almost all the guys at the top of the market have question marks. Arrieta and Darvish are great pitchers, but they have had issues, with injuries or big-game falters. Martinez had a great 2017, but he’s so-so defensively and NL teams can’t be faulted for worrying about giving that much money to a guy who might be better suited as a DH in a couple of years. Hosmer is an outstanding player, but $150 million is a lot for a first baseman who has never topped 25 homers and just last year (2016) produced an OPS of .761, which was BELOW the average OPS of MLB first basemen (.781) that year. And so on and so forth. The potential regret factor (“I knew we shoulda signed that guy!”) isn’t large.
It might take only a signing or two to start the dominoes tumbling, but with patient front offices that hasn’t happened yet. Might not happen for a couple of weeks, still. Worth noting that you’ve probably heard whispers of collusion as a reason for the slowdown, and I understand that some of the basic indications are there. I don’t think this offseason is a good test for that, though, but if next offseason is similarly slow, then the conspiracy theorists will have my full attention. Because …
3. The ‘next offseason’ factor
We’ve been talking about next year’s ridiculously good class of free agents for a long time.
It’s not just the names at the top of the list, but the major-impact guys on the list from 15 through 30, too. It makes a lot of sense that teams are saving money and positioning themselves for a strike-quick spending frenzy next November and December. If a team decides it’s not worth paying toward a luxury tax for Mike Moustakas, but it is worth it to land Manny Machado, it’s hard to fault that reasoning. Same thing applies to Arrieta/Darvish vs. Clayton Kershaw and Dallas Keuchel. It’s why the Yankees might not want to give Todd Frazier a three-year deal to play third base, even though he’s a perfect fit there in 2018, because they want to give Machado or Josh Donaldson a long-term deal to play the position in 2019 and beyond.
And this makes sense when you look at the players who have actually signed this offseason: It’s been the relievers landing free-agent deals left and right. As a contender, you can never have too many quality relief pitchers. You can, though, have too many third basemen or too many outfielders or too many first basemen.