You all know quite well about the slow free agent market last year, which has carried over into this year. It has made this protracted offseason feel like something of a new normal. That said, even as free agent signings have come very slowly, it generally seems like – once guys do sign – they have been at an annual salary rate right in the range of what we’d all expected.
Last year it was the case with even guys like Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish, JD Martinez, and Jake Arrieta who had to wait an inordinately long time to sign. By annual salary, their markets didn’t seem depressed.
So far this year, the same thing seems to be true: generally speaking, guys are getting the annual dollars they were expected to get (or more).
But annual dollars isn’t really the only way a contract is evaluated. There is also the length and the total guarantee. And that’s where it sure felt like things last year were coming up short, except perhaps for relievers. Consider that even Martinez and Arrieta, two of the top free agents on the market, who netted the two highest AAVs of the year, got only five and three guaranteed years on their contracts, respectively.
In total, in a robust market, only five free agents – Hosmer, Darvish, Martinez, Lorenzo Cain, and Alex Cobb got more than three guaranteed years.
The year before, twice as many free agents got four or more years. The year before that? 17(!) free agents got four or more years. The year before that? It was 17 again! The year before that … wait for it … it was 17 again!
You are getting a sense for what the market was like before last year.
Clearly, there has been a sea change in the way teams think about the lengths of free agent contracts. Perhaps teams were wary of having many deals on the books that ran up against the end of the current CBA, when things might once again change dramatically? So they are willing to pay high AAVs, but not guarantee lengths that go way past the end of the CBA?
This offseason, a similar story is playing out with respect to the AAVs of contracts being normal, but the lengths being very short.
Consider that, as we approach the end of December, in a free agent class that approaches 200 guys who could credibly sign big league deals, just TWO have signed deals for longer than three years (Patrick Corbin, 6 years and $140 million; Nathan Eovaldi, 4 years and $68 million). And just four players – Joe Kelly, Andrew McCutchen, Lance Lynn, and Jeurys Familia – have even signed three-year deals. By contrast, there have already been 16 two-year deals, and 32 one-year deals.
With a number of top free agents still on the market, maybe there will be a lot more four+ deals signed? Maybe. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are certainly locks, but outside of them, I’m not actually sure I could say there are guys who will *definitely* get four or more years, given the way things have turned.
Other free agents that’ll be in that range include Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Yasmani Grandal, AJ Pollock, Yusei Kikuchi, Marwin Gonzalez, David Robertson, Adam Ottavino, and Zach Britton. Given that Andrew Miller got just two years, I highly doubt any of the relievers outside of Kimbrel gets four years. And the rest of that group, well, it’s absolutely conceivable their offers top out at three years.
Even if we say half of that group joins Harper and Machado in landing four+ deals, you’re still talking about only eight or nine total deals of four years or more, in a robust free agent class, when a couple years ago, literally twice that many was the norm.
Shorter contracts. It’s here, maybe for good. Now start asking yourself whether that means even the guys at the very top of the market – the younger guys like Harper and Machado – might get much shorter contracts than we’re expecting. Maybe instead of 10 years, they get just eight? Or seven? I would have thought that would be crazy, but I’m less sure now.