We're over a week into 2018 and the current offseason has been a lackluster one, to say the least.
First, we waited for the qualifying offers to be dealt with, then we waited on the Ohtani sweepstakes, then it was the Stanton-stakes, then it was the Winter Meetings, then the holidays, then the hangover from the holidays and, yet, we're still waiting. Our subject du jour, then, is to explore the reasons for the overall snail's pace of this offseason. Are we going to see a flurry of moves soon (more than the Jay Bruce signing, which went down before I finished this article, of course)? Are there any trends that might continue into future offseasons or is this season simply an outlier? Does this even matter? Isn't the NFL postseason underway?
But if we are going to dig into it, and we are, the first thing on the agenda is the quality of the available free agents this year. It's been known for a quite a while that this was going to be a down-year in that regard. When I put together a list of the top free agents this offseason, things were already getting a tad dicy by the end.
The pitcher in the number ten spot, Lance Lynn, is coming off a 3.43 ERA/4.82 FIP season with 7.39 K/9, 3.77 BB/9 and 1.30 HR/9 and a career-low .244 BABIP. That was enough for 3.1 bWAR, but only 1.4 fWAR, and his career-worst season and first in his thirties after missing all of 2016 thanks to Tommy John surgery. While you can debate whether he makes the cut as a top-ten free agent or falls just outside of it, the fact that he's so close to the top gives you a general grasp on the situation this year.
To be fair, this year could have been a very different beast, quality-wise, but the continued trend of locking up players early on had the effect of keeping some pretty stellar players off the market. Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Paul Goldschmidt are the biggest names that would have been available had their teams not inked them to longer deals, and there would be others like Brandon Belt, Carlos Carrasco and Kyle Seager to make things more interesting.
But that wasn't to be, and the players that are available are who they are, and it's not as if there aren't useful players in the mix. Lance Lynn would still be a useful piece for a large number of teams, and there are a mess of players up the rankings ahead of him (Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, et al.) who also remain unsigned.
Next year's bumper crop of free agents, which includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon and potentially Clayton Kershaw, to name a handful, looks to be a superior class, to say the least. There's certainly reason to believe that there's surely some calculus going on in the front offices about how to spread their dollars around. But even if the overall quality of the free agents available is less than ideal, there are still those aforementioned premium players available, albeit at a cost.
The cost, in both dollars and contract length, of the most elite players on the market is likely another deterrent to deals going down. It probably doesn't help things that Scott Boras is representing some of the best players available, including Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta and Mike Moustakas.
Boras is known for his desire to get the biggest contracts for his clients and his steely resolve in procuring them, which can result in his waiting out the market in an attempt to incur anxiety in owners and front offices and drive up prices. While some might be quick to cast aspersions in Boras' direction, he's clearly just doing his job and trying to get the biggest piece of the pie for his clients, who have managed to navigate MLB's iffy indentured-servitude-ish labor-pay arrangement and make it through the minors and arbitration to finally claim their payday.
Boras may be playing teams against each other and, for example, gunning up Hosmer's "prestige value" in attempt to get his client a nine-figure contract, but that's (again) his job and it's exactly what we've come to expect. It's not anything new and exciting to see his clients wait a little longer into the offseason to sign. What is a relatively newer trend is that we're seeing the front offices employ the same tactic more and more.
In recent years, we've seen teams wait out players, especially those with qualifying offers and the accompanying draft pick loss, later than we ever have before. The C-word ("collusion") has started to make the rounds and it's not hard to see why, if you consider the current landscape with so, so many players, even those without the dreaded QOs attached, remaining unsigned almost halfway into January. It's not that hard to imagine the owners, who have quite the history of doing so, working together to ensure that the players get less, but there are certainly other explanations out there for what's going on.
It's a truism now that, throughout the league, front offices have been changing and becoming more analytically-focused. As they've all collectively morphed into a more Moneyball-minded mentality, and the differences between teams' FO's have been growing smaller and smaller, we've seen the effects in a number of ways: They value their prospects and young players more. They're less likely to hand out huge contracts to aging veterans. When they do part with their best prospects, they're usually looking for younger, proven players with multiple years of control left at below-market prices.
While this sort of behavior used to be reserved for the smart, smaller market teams, it's not just the A's n' Rays doing it these days. The Yankees were the benchmark among the big-market, free-spending teams, and they made it within a game of the World Series thanks to young players they refused to trade away in recent years. The Dodgers might be the "new-Yankees," but they refused to give up too much of the farm last offseason for Brian Dozier and settled for Logan Forsythe instead.
While we're on the subject of the Yankees and the Dodgers, we probably need to touch on another one of the issues looming large over this offseason, baseball's ostensible "salary cap." If you're thrilled about moves like the Dodgers-Braves trade from earlier this offseason, then you might also inclined to rub pot roast all over your chest and I'm not sure what I can do to help you. But those sorts of moves look likely to occur more and more under the current CBA, as richer teams negotiate the trying path of staying under the luxury tax, at least until they reset the clock in preparation for next offseason's free agent bonanza.
In general, we have yet to see whether or not the the luxury tax will follow through on its promised intended effects. If, say, the Twins wait out the market and nab Arrieta on the cheap, that would be a victory for competitive balance, but certainly would be less of a win for Arrieta and his ilk, and now we're about to veer into some deep philosophical questions about what's the right way for MLB to handle labor relations and, while I have plenty of opinions about the way things should be, this is an article exploring why things are the way they are and that's a topic for another time.
And so we return to the MLB of the present, in which there are 29 teams ostensibly engaged in figuring out how they can win a championship as quickly as possible. The current postseason format gives enough hope to almost every team that they could catch a break and at least grab a Wild Card spot. The Pirates are unlikely to contend, but a postseason appearance isn't so far-fetched that they've yet traded away Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen.
And then there's the one team that didn't meet the attempting-to-contend requirement of the preceding paragraph, and who has also royally screwed up the offseason, the Miami Marlins. When I hope-predicted that we'd finally see the end of the Loria-era before last season, I certainly wasn't wishing for a worse situation for Miami fans than they were already facing. But that's apparently where we're at, and the Stanton/Gordon/Ozuna moves (and potentially Yellich), have placed another twist in this wildly-weird offseason. When a franchise is basically giving away its best players, it's going to throw a wrench in everyone's offseason plans.
At the end of the day, there are a multitude of factors involved in how slow-moving this offseason has been. Some hold far-reaching ramifications that we'll be talking about again soon when we're facing potential labor stoppages. Some will likely sort themselves out over the coming weeks and be forgotten, discarded without a thought like so many spent Christmas trees. I personally, however, long for the much-needed banter about ridiculous contracts normally handed out to coincide with our shortest and darkest days.