“This month historically in baseball has been when teams are really ramping up and you’re starting to see clubs finalize what their team’s going to look like. I really feel like January is the new December as we move forward.”
That is Cardinals President John Mozeliak speaking with The Athletic this week, but really it could’ve been any number of executives around baseball.
While there was some activity this week at the virtual Winter Meetings, there wasn’t much in the way of free agent signings. Nor was there earlier this month, and obviously there was hardly any in November. As Mozeliak said, historically, you would see a lot of teams rounding into shape by late December, with only stray free agents lingering much past mid-January. The last few years have seen that calendar slip a bit, but still, even last year, a majority of the top 50 free agents were signed before December concluded.
This year, we’ve had just six or seven free agents sign so far who would be considered top 50 types. Yes, it’s slow. Really slow. And maybe Mozeliak is right that, this year, January will be the new December, as teams and players wait for more clarity on rules, on the vaccine, and on attendance expectations.
And budgets. Baseball budgets.
Look at how Eno Sarris kicked off a discussion today on the top free agents, emphasis added:
This whole free agency thing might take a while to play out. We’re supposedly in the middle of (virtual) winter meetings, but instead of high-priced free agent signings, we’ve had some back-end pickups and a few trades. And there might be good reason for this: According to multiple sources, many teams have told prospective free agents that they just don’t have a player acquisition budget yet. Hard to know how much you can spend on a single player when you don’t know how much you can spend on the whole team.
No budget yet. In mid-December. Many teams. The Cubs are almost certainly one of them.
It would take only a few teams not having a budget to throw a serious wrench in free agency, because Team X holds up Player A which holds up Team Y which holds up Player B and so on and so on. Only really specific fits between teams and players at really specific price points can get done (which, hey, that’s what we’ve seen!).
Against this backdrop, I think it’s interesting how Jed Hoyer put things to NBC today, explaining that there’s a difference between not being able to finalize much right now and not being able to do anything:
— Cubs Talk (@NBCSCubs) December 10, 2020
In explaining how things can play out this offseason when there is budget uncertainty, and when/whether the Cubs can actually go out and sign a free agent of consequence: “I think there’s a certain order of operations. I think you want to get a feel for where we are in that [budget] range first. But we’re on the phone with agents all the time, certainly we’re talking about a lot of different outcomes, and so I think that’s kind of the nature of what everyone’s doing right now. They probably have a lot of lines in the water. They probably are having a lot of conversations in anticipation of what could happen. But, yes, that level of uncertainty has caused a range and not a specific budget number that we might normally have.”
If the Cubs don’t yet have a set baseball budget, then obviously they cannot be completing any major buy-side transactions that implicate 2021. But the thing is, while I understand business operations wanting to wait as long as possible before finalizing the budget – the pandemic and its fallout changes by the day – pretty soon, not having a set budget is going to hamstring whatever Hoyer is aiming to do. It doesn’t appear to have happened yet, but it will eventually unless that budget range is already much higher than we think.
The Cubs, then, would be very fortunate if January – or February! – is the new December. No, the Cubs aren’t going to be spending at the top of the market on the premium free agents this year no matter where the budget finalizes. But I don’t doubt they could be in on a number of opportunistic level signings if the 2021 attendance projections improve in the next few weeks. So if the bulk of free agents and teams want to wait a few more weeks before they really get busy, hey, fine by the Cubs.
For me, that’s all I want to see. I want to see the Cubs in a position where they can do what they want to do in terms of the “heavy restart” without trading away guys SOLELY for salary relief, and where they can target short-term, intriguing, low-cost free agents to give a shot in 2021. (Also, I want them to target Ha-Seong Kim, but that’s kind of a separate matter, since he’s the one 25-year-old free agent who could realistically be targeted as a long-term addition.)
That’s the route where the Cubs can simultaneously (1) restart the roster for the longer-term in a very significant way, (2) while also giving themselves a puncher’s chance in the crappy NL Central in 2021, and (3) staying very flexible for the huge free agent classes after 2021 and 2022. I know that doesn’t sound sexy, but I’m just trying to be realistic.