Ice Cold Free Agent Market May Present Opportunities
With nine of the top ten best free agents still available, it makes you wonder why the hot stove has been ice cold this offseason. Are teams trending towards a newfound frugality? Are MLB clubs looking to next offseason’s stacked free agent class? It could be either one or maybe things are finally starting to heat up.
We are only one month away from pitchers and catchers reporting. Yet, the hot stove has been as ice cold as most of the country. The biggest move of the offseason remains the Yankees’ acquisition of National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins. The top end of the free agent market, though, has been largely stagnant.
Top Players Still Available
Only one of the players on the Mlbtraderumors.com top 10 free agent list has been signed. The Rockies inked reliever Wade Davis to a three-year $52 million deal. Another, Masahiro Tanaka, never actually became a free agent. Tanaka decided against exercising the opt-out clause in his contract and will remain with the Yankees.
Eight players from that list remain unsigned. Among them are reliever Greg Holland and a trio of starters in Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, and Lance Lynn. Slugger J.D. Martinez and Royals’ alumni Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer are the top position players still available.
Big Guns Fall Silent
The Yankees are normally expected to be big players in the free agent market. But aside from trading for Stanton, their biggest move of the offseason has been to re-sign starter CC Sabathia to a team-friendly $10 million one-year contract.
Not only are they refraining from spending, but the Yankees are shedding payroll in an effort to get under the $197 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold. They dealt Chase Headley and four-time All-Star Starlin Castro to that end.
The Dodgers appear to be in a similar salary-dumping mode. Los Angeles traded Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and Charlie Culberson to Atlanta for Matt Kemp. The deal cut roughly $28 million off the Dodgers’ luxury tax figure for 2018.
So far, the Dodgers have signed only one free agent. They inked pitcher Tom Koehler to a $2 million one-year deal. The 31-year-old righty had been non-tendered by Toronto.
Luxury Tax Burden
The Los Angeles Dodgers were assessed a $36.2 million luxury tax for 2017. It was the highest among the five teams who received a bill.
They were followed by the Yankees at $15.7 million. This marks the 15th straight year that New York was required to pay the luxury tax.
The San Francisco Giants ($4.1 million), Detroit Tigers ($3.7 million), and Washington Nationals ($1.45 million) were also assessed. A record six teams had paid baseball’s CBT for the 2016 season, including the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. But the two iconic franchises came in under the threshold for this past season.
With such a high number of normally big-spending teams now being more budget conscious, the market has become depressed. Without the big guns bidding up prices, the top players of this year’s free agent class have thus far been unable to get the rich contracts they seek.
A Weak Class
Aside from luxury tax considerations, another big factor contributing to the Hot Stove malaise could be the relative weakness of the class. While quality players are certainly available, teams could be looking ahead to the superstars that are slated to hit the market next winter.
Unless they sign contract extensions with their current clubs, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Josh Donaldson will be free agents after this season. If he opts out of the final two years of his $215 million contract, then three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw will be as well.
Harper will make $21.63 million this year, Machado $18 million, and Donaldson just agreed to a record $23 million one-year deal with Toronto to avoid arbitration. Serious would-be suitors are likely looking ahead to next year, and planning to open the vaults accordingly.
Second-Tier Talent Off the Board
Curiously, only seven players ranked 11-30 on mlbtraderumors.com’s list remain available. Much of the second-tier talent has already been snapped up.
Carlos Santana has signed the largest free agent contract so far this winter. The Phillies inked him to a $60 million three-year pact.
Three-year deals and under seem to be the standard operating procedure so far. Jay Bruce ($39 million, Mets), Zack Cowart ($38 million, Angels), Tyler Chatwood ($38 million, Cubs), and Mike Minor ($28 million, Rangers) have all reached three-year deals. As did Jake McGee and Bryan Shaw, who each agreed to sign with the Rockies for $27 million.
Meanwhile, scores of players have signed one or two-year contracts. Could this trend of short-term deals continue when the bigger names start coming off the board?
A New Trend?
It’s very possible. While the top available talents are said to be seeking 5-7 year deals, it remains to be seen who—if any of them—actually gets one.
There is no shortage of potential landing spots for the top free agents. But thus far, teams have filled needs with less expensive options.
Boston, for example, was known to be on the prowl for a big bat. Priority one was considered an upgrade at one (or both) of the corner infield spots.
The Red Sox were linked to Martinez, Moustakas, and Hosmer. But so far, their biggest move has been to re-sign first baseman Mitch Moreland to a two-year, $13 million contract. Moreland was rated 0.0 Wins Above Average and 2.0 Wins Above Replacement last year.
Plenty of Suitors
The Angels won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes earlier this offseason, while the Astros just acquired Gerrit Cole from the Pirates via trade. But there are plenty of teams that still need starting pitching.
Yu Darvish was one of the hottest commodities at the trade deadline last year. While his poor performance during the World Series could have cooled interest, he has amassed 19.3 WAR over his five-year MLB career. His peak was 5.8 in 2013, while he produced 3.9 combined in stints for the Rangers and Dodgers last season.
Jake Arrieta won the NL Cy Young Award in 2015 and was a key piece contributor in helping the Cubs break their 108-year World Series championship drought the following season. Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, meanwhile, provide additional options for pitching-starved teams.
Baltimore is said to be seeking MLB-ready starting pitchers in a deal for Manny Machado. Yet, the Orioles have been inactive in the free agent market, except to sign multiple players to minor league deals. Baltimore pitchers carried a 4.97 ERA and 1.45 WHIP last season. The only team in the league that fared worse was the Tigers (5.36, 1.50).
There is no shortage of NL teams that could benefit from the caliber of pitching that Darvish and Arrieta can provide. The Dodgers and Cubs will have to replace them somehow if they don’t re-sign.
The Yankees are said to be interested in Darvish “at a reasonable price.” It’s possible that other teams are simply playing the waiting game to see if a bargain falls into their laps.
This situation presents an opportunity for teams to get talent — potentially on the cheap. It also provides a chance for small or mid-market teams to delve into the market and come away with quality players who would normally be considered cost-prohibitive.
Who knows, maybe even the Royals will be able to hang onto one or more of their star position players. They very well could, if the market trend doesn’t change — and soon.