Three big bits of news coming together over the past 12 hours: MLB telling teams to prepare for an on-time start to Spring Training in just about a month, word that the vaccine rollout plans in the U.S. will be changing to speed things up, and Liam Hendriks getting a surprisingly monster contract from the White Sox.
You put those three things together and it suggests to me that there is added optimism about the nature of the season ahead, at least financially, and my speculation was that it could mean we see free agency finally take off in a big way. Not only because the market naturally operates on a rippling effect, but also because there is now more certainty about what’s coming (even if, uh, we still don’t know all the rules yet … maybe get on that?).
Buster Olney shares what he’s hearing, and it’s actually a slightly different variation on that theme, raising what might be a unique approach to free agency this year:
How will the news about camps opening on time affect free agency? Well, there is some expectation that a wide swath of players will agree to split contracts — minor-league deals with ML camp invites in the next 10 days or so, to begin their preparation.
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) January 12, 2021
In other words, the swath of free agents Olney is talking about* is not the group of significant free agents still waiting at the top of the market, though I do think we’ll see some movement on that front within the next couple of weeks (maybe moreso after arbitration exchange day on Friday). Instead, Olney is talking about the guys who are a tier or two down from that group, who might surprisingly have to accept “minor league deals” just to get a team spot locked down for Spring Training. Then, if they make the team – which might be the presumption in a lot of cases – they get a more traditional-looking free agent salary. But only if they make the team … which not only buys the team financial flexibility with respect to a player they may want to later cut, but it also buys them time.
For example, say you sign a guy today to an $8 million deal, well, you owe it no matter what. You sign him instead to a minor league deal that pays him $8 million if he makes the big league team, well, you’ve just bought yourself two more months to make sure the pandemic hasn’t worsened.
You don’t really see too many deals like that in a normal market, but I could see it making some sense this time around. Of course, the huuuuge risk to the players who sign these deals is that they find themselves dumped in March, when it might be too late to get a deal at close to the same value. Of course, the flip side is that, in this market, there’s risk in not signing anything at all, and just waiting.
Again, what’s different here is that I’m not talking about (and I don’t think Olney is talking about) free agents whom you’d otherwise expect might have to sign a minor league deal, with a good shot to make the team (think Jason Kipnis last year with the Cubs). Instead, I’m talking about (and I think Olney is talking about) guys you’d normally expect to obviously land free agent deals. Like, guys whom you are right now thinking might get $4 to $10 million on a one-year deal. What if THOSE guys have to sign minor league deals, but with a very ample big league rate? We just don’t really see that normally. But we also don’t normally operate in a world where the difference between January and March could be so enormous in terms of future expectations.
Needless to say, the Cubs would be right there in the meat of the teams likely operating this way if it happens. They may well expect that they could add $15 to $20 million in payroll come March, but they’d love a chance to build in an out in case vaccinations slow further or some other thing goes wrong. How you get a guy who sees himself as worth $8 million to sign a minor league deal right now, though, I really don’t know.
In any case, the upshot here is that I’m expecting free agency to start hustling a bit more, and the many, many buy-low candidates out there (big league deal or weird minor league deal) will soon have to figure out what kind of deal they can accept. The Cubs, for their part, can at least sell opportunity in the rotation, in the outfield, and at second base, right?
*(Ignore the “split contracts” reference, because that’s actually a much narrower thing for guys at certain service time levels who get a spot on the 40-man roster. From the context, I gather he simply means what the rest of this post describes: a minor league deal that pays a significant big league rate if the guy makes the team.)