Last offseason was unusual and awkward and challenging. Although much of the early hold-up in the offseason was due to the availability of Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani, free agents found themselves without jobs loooooong after those situations were resolved. Remember the free agent Spring Training?
It has been reasonable to assume that, because some of the big spenders got themselves under the luxury tax last year, resetting their penalties, and because this year’s free agent class is overall a good bit stronger than last year, we wouldn’t see a repeat this time around. Surely, what happened last year was an anomalous confluence of a number of unrepeatable things, right? And not a sign that teams, en masse, are pulling back the reigns on free agent contracts?
Well, that certainly remains to be seen:
At the GM meetings this week, I took the temperature of baseball's increasingly odd dynamic. Rich teams acting like there's a salary cap. A third of the league steering steering clear of big deals. All of it sowing confusion over the game's future. Column: https://t.co/vSUd0DRA9l pic.twitter.com/IEKNOVknrD
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 9, 2018
Trying to get free agents to sign quickly on team-friendly deals this November under the threat that maybe things will turn out badly for them like last year … I get the strategy, but, man, it sure feels gross. I immediately think about the deal Eduardo Escobar signed with the Diamondbacks before free agency began. It sure seemed like a steal for the Diamondbacks. Maybe Escobar felt this push.
In a league where so many teams are taking, where so many middle-ground teams are looking to turn a big profit, and where so many of the top revenue clubs are being extra cautious about the
salary cap luxury tax, you have the makings for a slow winter – and more labor unrest.
I wonder how much of this also has to do with the uncertainty of what is going to happen when the current CBA is up after 2021. Is it possible that teams are reluctant to commit massive, long-term dollars because they know things might change in a very fundamental way after 2021? Combine that with teams pressuring free agents to sign cheap deals early? In an already very, very tense labor market? Yikes. It makes me all the more nervous for the battles to come.
The Cubs, of course, are right in the thick of this conversation, and we’ll have to keep it in mind at the 10,000-foot level when we talk about the Cubs’ disinclination to sign additional big-money contracts this offseason. Consider, in the current environment, the Cubs are one of only two teams (Red Sox) that right now already project to be over the first tier of the luxury tax. That’s not offered as a defense of the Cubs, necessarily, I’m just saying that’s what the landscape looks like right now.
In the end, even if things are slow like last year, I still tend to believe free agents will get theirs, and teams like the Yankees and Dodgers – despite all the rumors – will once again be very aggressive spenders. There’s just too much to be gained when you’re a competitive club by grabbing those incremental wins available in free agency.