by Max Brill
This offseason has been one of the slowest, if not the slowest, in history. The top five free agents according to MLB Trade Rumors all remain unsigned, and we are now less than two weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting. Last year, 65 free agents were signed in February, the highest total since the early 2000s. Based on the number of players still available, that total will be exceeded this year. The question of why the free agent market is so slow has been asked and answered several times this offseason, but I want to take a more in-depth look at exactly why we’re seeing this trend this year.
First off, it’s likely that teams are now realizing that holding out on free agents is likely the best move for the team. For example, Jay Bruce was seeking a five-year deal in November, but he settled for a three-year deal with the Mets in the middle of January. The longer teams wait to sign free agents, the more likely it seems that players will be willing to forego lofty contract demands in favor of signing some sort of deal.
Secondly, there are not a ton of difference-makers on the FA market. I discussed Eric Hosmer’s free agency case last week on my personal blog. The other marquee names on the market are Yu Darvish, who is 31 with a lot of mileage on his arm and some injury concern, J.D. Martinez, who is an awful defender with a good bat, though there is not a huge market for power-hitting outfielders, and Jake Arrieta, who will be 32 on Opening Day and declined in a substantially last season. All of these guys could contribute in a big way to whatever club they each end up joining, but there are valid concerns surrounding each of them. And these three guys are supposed to be the cream of this free agent crop so you can imagine the issues of those lower on MLBTR’s list.
Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, teams are just unable or unwilling to spend. This is where I want to go into more depth. I’ve lumped teams into a few groups, and I’ll explain why each of those teams is not willing or able to dole out the cash for these free agents. There is some overlap between the groups so I’ve placed each team in the group I think describes them best.
Group 1: The teams that weren’t going to spend anything, anyway
This group includes the Athletics, Marlins, Padres, Phillies, Pirates, Rays, Tigers, and White Sox. Each of these teams, for one reason or another, probably was not going to be a key player in free agent negotiations this offseason anyway. Let’s go team-by-team.
Oakland Athletics: The Athletics are in a state of rebuilding right now. The team’s payroll, according to Roster Resource (I will be using this as my reference for payroll in this article from here on out) is currently at an MLB-low $62MM. It doesn’t project to go up much more than that, especially because Oakland is not trying to win. The A’s are in a division with the Astros and Angels, both of whom are probably going to make the playoffs, and the Mariners and Rangers always hang out around .500 with a possibility of making the postseason. In short, Oakland wasn’t going to add any huge free agents anyway because they’re looking to give their young talent a shot and see what they have.
Miami Marlins: I’ve written two articles on what the Marlins are doing this offseason (here and here). The direction in which they want to take their franchise is still not clear, though one thing is: the Marlins are not spending money. It’s that simple. Their payroll currently sits at around $97MM and they have yet to trade some of the remaining talent on the roster so you can expect that to decrease. The Marlins were not big buyers this offseason (and, for the record, it doesn’t look as though they will be winners anytime soon).
San Diego Padres: I debated not putting the Padres in this category because they have been linked to Eric Hosmer several times this offseason, but I decided to throw them on here anyway. The reason being that the team has a lot of cap room, but does not have a ton of holes to fill. Despite their links to Hosmer, the team still has a very capable Wil Myers at first base on a team-friendly contract. The team seems comfortable trotting out the same outfield they did at the end of last season that has an average age of just under 26 years old, and they signed lower-profile free agents to man the left side of their infield. The Friars are also probably not hellbent on putting together a stellar rotation considering the fact that they are in the midst of a lengthy rebuild. The team currently has five starting pitching prospects in the MLB Pipeline Top 100, and four of those are in the top 50. In addition, the team has two infielders in the top 100, so the Padres are basically playing the waiting game. I don’t expect any significant changes to the team’s estimated $73MM payroll between now and Opening Day.
Philadelphia Phillies: The Phillies and Padres are in similar situations. Both teams have established pieces in the major leagues but are still waiting for a handful of their prospects to come up. The Phillies shocked a lot of people by inking Carlos Santana to a three-year deal with a team option for 2021. This effectively ended the team’s spending. The team is holding back on spending now because I predict they are going to go wild with next year’s free agent class. I’ll get back to that later.
The Phillies are entering the 2018 season with a projected payroll of $65MM, and a little over 25% of that is due to the aforementioned Santana. The team will have a grand total of four guaranteed contracts heading into the next offseason so they will be free to pursue any of the high-profile free agents available. The team is also not trying to win in 2018, so they likely were not going to spend big on any of the high-profile free agents in this class, anyway. Look for them to go wild next offseason, though.
Pittsburgh Pirates: The Pirates, much like the Marlins, have made it clear that they do not want to pay for anything. By trading away Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, they effectively took themselves out of the free agent market. Additionally, the Pittsburgh front office is notorious for being stingy with money, so they probably weren’t going to ink a free agent to a big deal, anyway. In the past six offseasons, the Pirates have not handed out a single contract of length greater than four years, and their two biggest deals were both three-year pacts for an average annual value of under $14MM. Basically, this team wasn’t going to spend any money, regardless of where they were in their contention cycle. The fact that they are seemingly blowing everything up only provides more evidence that the team and its estimated $85MM payroll are going down.
Tampa Bay Rays: Yet another franchise that simply does not want to spend money. The team traded franchise cornerstone Evan Longoria, who was on a very team-friendly contract, to the Giants for prospects. The team currently has a projected Opening Day payroll of $86MM, and that likely will not go up considering the fiscal tendencies of this franchise.
Cincinnati Reds: The Reds have Joey Votto, Luis Castillo, and then a whole lot of talent in the minors. This is not a team that can reasonably contend with their current divisional landscape (Cubs, Brewers, and Cardinals all look well-positioned to make a run at the postseason), and it looks as though the management recognizes this. The Reds enter 2018 with an estimated $100MM payroll, which is in the bottom third of the league. Based on the fact that the team is waiting on five MLB Top 100 prospects, I wouldn’t expect the Reds to sign any of the big-name free agents remaining on the open market.
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers, much like a handful of other teams in this group, are in full rebuild mode. They shipped off J.D. Martinez, Justin Upton, and Justin Verlander last season, and after having the worst record in 2017, are projected to finish near the bottom of the standings in 2018. Additionally, the team still owes a lot of money to Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, and the current 2018 Opening Day payroll is projected at $125MM. This is a lot for a team that is in rebuild mode. I wouldn’t have expected them to make any big moves in this free agent period based on where they are in their contention cycle anyway, so it makes sense that they haven’t.
Chicago White Sox: The White Sox are more like the Phillies than any other team in this group. They are not quite in their contention cycle, but they have some quality talent in the major leagues. Yoan Moncada, a former top-3 prospect, will be the team’s Opening Day second baseman. The team already has former all-star Jose Abreu set to man first base. The team also has six prospects in the MLB Pipeline Top 100, two of which are in the top 10. The White Sox are playing the waiting game, so their projected $76MM payroll probably won’t move too much between now and Opening Day.
Group 2: The teams that might spend if they were closer to contending
Baltimore Orioles: The Orioles finished at the bottom of the AL East in 2017 and have a relatively shallow farm, so there’s no question that this team was going to be relatively inactive in free agency. They also need to save money for the impending free agency of star infielder Manny Machado. This is a team that has been willing to give out big extensions and contracts in free agency in the past, but they’re not close to winning anything so there is not a particularly logical reason for them to start handing out contracts to big-name free agents. Even signing the top two free agents in this year’s class probably wouldn’t make this team a top contender in the stacked AL East, so the Orioles are making the right move in holding on to their cash.
Toronto Blue Jays: The Blue Jays and Orioles are similar in a lot of respects this offseason. They finished only one game ahead of the Orioles last season and have shown a tendency to spend money when the times call for it. However, they enter the season with the sixth-highest payroll in the AL and are likely to trot out a losing team. They also do not have a farm system that inspires confidence, though I must acknowledge that their system is a lot better than that of the Orioles. With all of that being said, it would be unwise for the Blue Jays to chase any of the available big-name free agents because they are getting a lot of money off the books after this season. A few of the relatively pricier contracts from older players (I’m looking at you, Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ) are coming off the books after this season, and if the team wants to contend in their division, they’re going to have to shell out some of the cash for free agents in the 2018-2019 free agent class. They also have former MVP 3B Josh Donaldson getting ready to walk after 2018, so they’re probably saving up money to make him an enticing offer. Toronto, much like Baltimore, is making a wise move to not open up their wallets this offseason.
Seattle Mariners: It seems like the Mariners have been in a perpetual state of maybe contending and maybe not. The team hasn’t made the playoffs since 2001, but they’ve won 86+ games five times and over 90 games twice since then. In just the last five seasons, the team has gone back and forth between losing and winning records each year. MLB Trade Rumors only projected the Mariners to land two of the top 50 free agents, both of whom were ranked outside the top 40. One of those free agents has signed elsewhere, and the other is projected to get a 1-year, $6MM deal. Not exactly groundbreaking. Moreover, the Mariners have all-stars starting at five of their nine hitting spots. The rotation could use some work so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mariners forked over some dough to land one of the starters still on the market, but their rotation was not seen as a priority coming into the season, so it makes sense that they haven’t gone after an arm just yet. And even if the team doesn’t land an arm, they would still be fine for 2018.
Texas Rangers: The Rangers are quite similar to the Orioles and Blue Jays in that they now have to compete in a division with a lot of talent. The Astros are the defending World Series champs and have only gotten better since the end of 2017, and the Angels landed Shohei Ohtani, which makes them an instant contender for a wild card. The Rangers finished under .500 last season after trading Yu Darvish and have a solid number of young contributors either in the major leagues or on the horizon. It would make the most sense for the Rangers to hold off on spending in this mediocre free agent class and gear up for the 2018-2019 offseason, where they could become instant World Series contenders if they land any of the big names.
Group 3: The team with money issues
There is only one team in this group: the Mets. Because of course they are.
New York Mets: This team still has holes to fill. They currently project to start a 2B/3B combo of Wilmer Flores and Asdrubal Cabrera. They also seem to want to add another arm. The team has expressed interest in both Mike Moustakas and Alex Cobb, but only if their asking prices come down. Classic Mets. The team is currently projected to finish right around .500. I want to push the narrative that the Mets are unwilling to spend even in the middle of their contention cycle, but I would be doing them a disservice if I didn’t point out that the team re-signed Jay Bruce. He was ranked just outside MLBTR’s top 10, but even still he did not get as big of a contract as he had initially demanded. The Mets want to contend, but as long as the Wilpons are holding on to their cash, it’s unlikely this team makes the postseason. And based on how the team’s ownership talks about their finances and desire to have a lower payroll to open 2018 than they did in 2017, I don’t see this time shelling out the money for any of the remaining free agents.
Group 4: The big spenders that are saving
This group is just three teams deep: the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox. All of these teams are probably going to spend a ridiculous amount of money in the next offseason because of the number of impact players that will be available.
Los Angeles Dodgers: The Dodgers traded Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, and Brandon McCarthy to the Braves earlier in the offseason so they could get under the luxury tax threshold of $197MM. If their 2018 payroll remains under that mark, they will have far more flexibility in signing free agents next season, since their initial $20MM over the luxury tax will be taxed at the base rate of 20% instead of the higher rate they would have to pay if they remained over the tax threshold. Additionally, this team does not really need many reinforcements, seeing as they made the World Series last season and did not lose any of their major pieces. Sure, Yu Darvish will be gone, but he was not that great for LA and they have prospects like Walker Buehler and Mitchell White coming through the system ready to replace Darvish’s production. The Dodgers may go the remainder of the offseason without spending another penny on major league free agency. Given their payroll situation, I would not be all that surprised.
Boston Red Sox: The Red Sox, unlike the Dodgers do not seem to have any intention of getting below the luxury tax threshold. The team is currently about $20MM over the luxury tax threshold and has been linked to J.D. Martinez, who is likely to command a contract with an annual average value at or above $25MM. The team does not have any glaring holes to fill, so they do not need to spend, but the team usually spends when it’s not imperative to keep up with their divisional rival who does the same. With that being said, there are not any overwhelmingly impactful free agents available on this market (all of the top FAs, as I mentioned before, have some sort of concerns), so Boston not spending on any of the big names out there this offseason may be a calculated move for the franchise.
New York Yankees: The Yankees have paid the luxury tax every single season since it was introduced to the league. The team has the reputation of bullying all the other teams in free agency due to the fact that they have the deepest pockets in all of baseball. Shockingly, the 2018 Yankees are projected to be under the luxury tax threshold, which is perfect for them because it means they will be taxed less next season than they would have if they were over the luxury tax mark this year. Because the team currently sits under the luxury tax threshold, they will be able to sign any of the free agents they want to next season for a relatively lower total cost to the team. And knowing the Yankees, they’re going to be making a push next offseason for more than one of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yasiel Puig, Dallas Keuchel, and the rest of the cast. The fact that they have only made one MLB signing this offseason (C.C. Sabathia for $10MM) is uncharacteristic of the Yankees, but they’re gearing up for next offseason when they will likely go back to spending in the fashion of the Yankees under George Steinbrenner.
Group 5: The rest of baseball
This group contains the Angels, Astros, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Diamondbacks, Giants, Indians, Nationals, Rockies, and Twins. I’m not going to go through this group team-by-team as I did with the last four. The main similarity between all these teams is that they just do not need to spend. Seven of the twelve teams in this group made the playoffs last season. Of the teams that didn’t, the Brewers and Cardinals both finished within four games of the second NL wild card spot. The Angels were in the wild card race for most of September. The Braves and Giants are the two outliers in this group.
The Braves have a loaded farm system (MLB-leading eight prospects on the top 100) and have a good amount of talent in the majors, so there is no particular need for them to chase any free agents. Nick Markakis is currently projected to be the team’s opening day left fielder so they could sign some reinforcements there, but it’s pretty unlikely they would go after someone who would command a lot of money. The team’s starting rotation will not be great, but they recently acquired two solid starters from the Dodgers (McCarthy and Kazmir), and six of the team’s eight prospects in the top 100 are pitchers, so they do not have a need for any of the arms on the market. The Braves are not likely to make the playoffs in 2018. This, combined with the fact that their contention window will not be fully open until the 2019 season when a handful of the prospects will be graduating to the big leagues, means the Braves were not going to be big spenders in this offseason.
The Giants, on the other hand, have made it clear that they intend to make one more run at glory before age catches up to their core. They acquired two players with over 40 career fWAR in Evan Longoria and Andrew McCutchen. How much those two will actually be able to contribute in 2018 is unclear given that both players are on the wrong side of 30 and are on the decline. Regardless, the team will have a solid chance of capturing a wild card spot this season. Fangraphs has the Giants projected to finish one game back of the DBacks for the second wild card spot and those projections typically have a margin of error of one game, so the Giants could very well play in October this season after missing the postseason last year. The main takeaway from all this is that the Giants are not in dire need of reinforcements, so their inactivity on the free agent market should not come as a surprise.
Of the teams that made the playoffs, the Cubs and Diamondbacks are really the only two teams that lost key contributors. The Cubs lost Arrieta but still have a starting rotation projected for 16 WAR by ZiPS, and the Diamondbacks will be replacing J.D. Martinez with David Peralta who is a far better defender and a capable hitter, though he’s no J.D. The outfield could use a little help but there is no dire need there, so there’s no reason for the Snakes to go out and drop a nine-figure contract on an outfielder. The rotation is extremely underrated and the team certainly does not need to add anyone there. Thus, a relatively quiet free agency in Arizona so far.
The point I’m trying to make here is this: there are very few teams that need to spend right now. In addition to that, all of the free agents currently on the market have injury concerns, age concerns, or are not projected to live up to the contracts they demand (looking at you, Eric Hosmer). On top of all that, next year’s free agent class will be stacked, provided that none of the impending free agents sign contract extensions. I mentioned a few of the impending free agents earlier in the article but let me repeat them and add some others:
Brian Dozier, DJ LeMahieu, Daniel Murphy, Elvis Andrus (if he opts out), Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Michael Brantley, Charlie Blackmon, Adam Jones, A.J. Pollock, Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw (if he opts out), Dallas Keuchel, Drew Pomeranz, Cody Allen, Jeurys Familia, and Andrew Miller. And that’s not even one-third of the free agent class.
Next offseason is going to be when all the difference-makers will be available, so doesn’t it only make sense that teams are holding on to their cash for now? They’ll be able to cash in next offseason, so spending money this offseason on players who are comparatively not as impactful as those that will be available next year would be foolish. Many teams are opting not to spend so they can stay under the luxury tax, or just so they can save some dough for next year. I’m all in favor of the owners giving money to the players, who deserve it far more, but those who are screaming collusion and calling for the players to strike may want to just take a step back and examine the situation a little deeper. It doesn’t look like the owners are doing anything terribly out of the ordinary.