In the Lukewarm Stove a few days ago, I made special note of the surprisingly close relationship between rumors and transactions in the offseason, and I want to explore that a bit further today.
In general, it’s important to remember that whenever a player signs on the dotted line or a club agrees to a trade, they’re sending ripples throughout the league in a number of ways. For example, that latest deal (contract, trade, or otherwise) is setting a comparable – something of a baseline for other, similar deals throughout the winter, which will form an inevitable basis for comparison (“You want how much money!? Player-X did it for $5M less!”).
Of course, this isn’t an exclusively “like-kind” process. Trades have the ability to affect the free agent market and free agent contracts can affect the trade market. Sometimes, a team has a trade in place that will only go down if they miss out on a player in free agency. Or only if they get him: like when the Cubs coordinated their signing of Ben Zobrist with their trade of Starlin Castro.
Another way the market is impacted by upstream deals is that the teams that miss out on Key Player A wind up moving on to Backup Plan Z, while Decent Player B can finally shop his services to that team. The way that plays out and trickles down is not at all hard to imagine, and this is a part of the “market developing” in a given offseason.
I don’t want to oversell these impacts. Not every player is represented by the same agent and not every GM values each player the same way. Gray areas do exist. There always exist some rogue free agents or teams or agents who try to “jump” the market – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
But even still, each season, there do seem to be certain trade targets and/or free agents who are so potentially impactful that the ripples their availability creates can be felt ten moves downstream. Which means, when that first guy takes a while, everybody takes a while, and we get ourselves a logjam.
Last season, you might recall, the logjam was a two-headed monster: Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani. Although neither player was a true free agent, the former was the reigning NL MVP and was more firmly on the trade block than any player of his caliber I can remember, and the latter was a potentially generational talent slated to do something on a baseball field we haven’t seen in a very long time, if ever. And, although each process came with limitations, each player had considerable say in where he wound up thanks to no-trade rights for Stanton and an IFA process for Ohtani. So, you had teams waiting on those guys – because adding them would significant impact the rest of their plans – and then you had free agents waiting on those teams, other teams waiting on those free agents, and so on and so on.
On December 8th, 2017, after a month of rumors, the Cardinals agreed to acquire Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, but the slugger exercised his no-trade clause to squash the deal. A few hours later, the same thing happened with the Giants. Then, a few days later, December 11th, the New York Yankees acquired Stanton for Castro and a couple of Minor Leaguers. Also on December 8th, Shohei Ohtani agreed to a deal with the Angels that was finalized the next day.
And just like that, the logjam created by these two uber-talented players appeared to break. Don’t get me wrong, there were deals that went down before this … but only five free agent deals before December 8 (including Tyler Chatwood’s agreement with the Cubs). That’s nuts.
It wasn’t until we all knew where massive talents like Stanton and Ohtani were going that the bulk of the market opened up, thankfully just in time for the Winter Meetings: in the next 13 days – December 8th to December 20th – 18 free agent deals were signed, not including Ohtani or any trades that went down. Last winter was still remarkably slow by our usual standards for a number of reasons, including labor discord, but the decisions of Stanton and Ohtani *absolutely* held things up at the beginning.
So, why do I bring this all back up? Well, because of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who could be this year’s Ohtani and Stanton (Clayton Kershaw could be in here too, if he decides to opt out of his contract and pursue a real free agency).
It’s possible that the 26-year-old elite duo could have extraordinary power to hold up the rest of the market, depending on how quickly they whittle down their own list of suitors.
For one, Harper and Machado are at the top of the food chain, meaning they’re expected to get the biggest contracts of the winter. Under normal circumstances, any agent worth his salt would advise his position-player clients to wait to see how much they make, because it could shift the landscape for contracts. But these aren’t normal circumstances. These guys aren’t just expected to get the biggest contracts of the winter, they might get two of the bigger contracts EVER. So that same principle of waiting applies, but potentially to its most extreme extent.
And then there’s this the impact: Both Harper and Machado can, almost on their own, completely change the trajectory of a team. So much so that if you are the lucky GM to get one of them into the fold, you might consider spending even more aggressively (in free agency or trade) to surround them and maximize their presence. But obviously, a team can’t know to be that aggressive until after they get them in house. And again, because Harper and Machado aren’t just the best free agents this year but two of the best free agents we’ve ever seen, that principle carries more weight than usual.
This is where the impact extends beyond just other position players. For example, a high-profile starting pitcher might have some new markets open up if Harper, for example, goes one place or another – that can be the team that got him really putting their pedal to the metal, or a team in that team’s division trying to combat their foe’s improvement. Or it could simply be a matter of funds being available because Harper or Machado went somewhere else.
THEN, there are the relatively new, but crucial luxury tax threshold considerations. Harper and Machado’s expectedly massive AAV can single-handedly push teams over certain thresholds, which might then push them to keep spending elsewhere. HOWEVER, by that same logic, missing out on one guy or the other might convince to lay off some other players. It’s an offshoot of my earlier point, but an important distinction. Frankly, there are many other, similar scenarios we’ll pocket for now, too.
So all of this is just a long-way of rhetorically asking “Remember the uniquely significant logjam created by Stanton and Ohtani last season?” Well, it could be even worse this year with Harper and Machado. I hope it isn’t, but because of their talent and unusually early – and coinciding – trips through free agency, it very well may be.
[Brett: Let’s add another wrinkle to this complicated, interwoven picture. It’s also possible that these two monster free agents will have the EXACT OPPOSITE effect on the market!
How? Well, unlike with Stanton and Ohtani, which took a long time, but for which we kinda knew there were somewhat set endpoints to the process, teams will know going into this offseason that Harper and Machado may very well take their free agencies deep into the offseason – maybe even well past the Winter Meetings in early December. *IF* that’s the case, you *COULD* see a larger than usual volume of clubs – and free agents – looking to jump the market, since they will already be anticipating a long wait for the rest of the market to shake out, as Michael described above. And then if a few surprises start jumping early, you could get a domino effect of clubs that don’t realistically expect to be in on Harper or Machado trying to push the next tier of free agents to sign quickly. Perhaps fearing another freeze out like last offseason, some of those free agents will jump to sign, even if the Harper and Machado suitors are telling them to wait.]
Brett Taylor contributed to this post.