The Free Agent Freeze Isn't Because of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado; It's Just the New Normal
As 2019 begins and spring training appears on the horizon, the hot stove remains frozen. Just like last winter, the offseason has seen precious little movement via free agency, with dozens of players still unsigned at the start of January. That includes the market’s two biggest gets, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, but also several other All-Stars and productive veterans looking for new homes. And there’s no sign that things are about to improve on that front.
The numbers are grim. Only 50 or so players have signed major league deals this offseason, leaving just over 200 still looking for work. Of those who have inked contracts, just eight have secured pacts of three or more guaranteed years. The market is still packed with stars, too: 25 of the players who made Ben Reiter’s top 50 free agents list have yet to sign, including Harper, Machado, Craig Kimbrel, Dallas Keuchel, A.J. Pollock, and Yasmani Grandal.
On the surface, it makes little sense that there’s much talent still out there, especially given that all it will cost a team is money. But that was the case last year, too, when players lingered on the market well into February. J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish and Eric Hosmer all didn’t sign contracts until that month; mid-tier options like Lance Lynn, Mike Moustakas, Logan Morrison and Alex Cobb didn’t fare much better. All also received contracts below what could’ve been expected for their age and talent or shorter than hoped for. This winter has played out the same way.
When the pilot light died on last year’s hot stove, the explanation was that a combination of factors had ruined free agency. Data-heavy front offices—staffed by analytics experts, many of whom have a background in finance—find free agents to be bad investments, and are unwilling to dump money into players who are approaching or in their 30s and entering the decline phase of their careers. A sudden rush of rebuilding teams, meanwhile, robbed players of competition for their services; with as much as half the league not trying to win, fewer teams were now in the bidding. Those franchises left were more than happy to wait out the players, knowing that, as spring training arrived, they would sign whatever they could get to avoid unemployment. On top of that, teams pointed to other issues—wanting to get below the luxury tax threshold; waiting for the resolution to the bidding for Shohei Ohtani and the Marlins’ plan to trade Giancarlo Stanton; staying out of the market to save money to go after Harper and Machado in 2018—as to why the slowdown persisted.
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It was a perfect storm of logistics and excuses, but with those same clouds hanging over this winter’s free agency, it looks like this is the new normal. Front offices continue to nickel and dime players. Teardowns continue apace, with borderline contenders like Seattle and Arizona dealing away stars this winter to get worse and cheaper. And the owners, never thrilled about free agency in the first place, are more than happy to keep their money, especially as they make more and more of it.
The expectation and hope was that the class of free agents led by Harper and Machado would put an end to the austerity—that checkbooks would spring back open thanks to the bevy of young stars now available. But even those two haven’t been able to jumpstart things. What should’ve been a deafening din of Harper rumors has slipped into a lot of nothing: The former MVP has received only one reported contract offer—that from his former team, for 10 years and $300 million, in November, which he rejected—while big spenders like the Dodgers and Cubs remain mum. Machado, meanwhile, is being courted by the Yankees, Phillies and White Sox (he has reportedly received an offer from the White Sox), but no other team has emerged to join the chase. Some clubs are likely working under the radar, and a #MysteryTeam will almost certainly pop up for both. But neither Harper nor Machado, despite both being under 30 and elite and able to make literally every franchise in baseball better, has gotten the kind of attention or offers that you would expect for players of their caliber.
It’s been even worse for the next tier down. Keuchel, a former Cy Young winner, is looking for a five-year deal, but that demand seems to have scared off most of his suitors. Kimbrel, a seven-time All-Star with 333 career saves, has found no one willing to meet his ask of $86 million. Grandal, the best catcher on the market, faces a situation where teams moved on to the cheaper veteran options at the position. And then there are lesser stars like Pollock or DJ LeMahieu or Cody Allen, where the chatter has been minimal if not nonexistent.
Some of that logjam may be cleared up when Harper and Machado sign, as teams will then pivot to their second or third plans. But if they’re unwilling to shell out the big bucks for that talented twosome, then what hope do the likes of Keuchel and Kimbrel and Grandal have of snagging the deals they want? And as they wait, spring training draws closer, and the desire to have a deal in hand by the time pitchers and catchers report grows ever stronger.
It’s a worrisome situation for the players, and one with no easy or visible solution. Speaking to ESPN’s Buster Olney, agent Jeff Berry suggested some steps players could take, including tactics to address service-time manipulation and plans not to take part in offseason activities or show up early to spring training, to level the playing field. But issues like arbitration salary structure and how many years of control a team has over a player won’t be fixed by not showing up to a franchise’s winter FanFest. They’re baked directly into the system, and perhaps more than anything are the reason behind the slowdown: So long as teams can get top-flight production from young players for pennies, there will never be an incentive to pay millions for it in free agency to veterans.
So how do you fix that? It’s up to the players’ union to figure that out in the next round of collective bargaining talks with MLB, but the current CBA isn’t scheduled to expire until December 2021, and it’s doubtful either the league or the owners are willing to re-negotiate before then. That fight will be long, ugly and painful, but the union may not have a choice but to wage it. As last winter showed and this one has proved, the free-agent freeze shows no signs of thawing otherwise.