This offseason has been slow. No question about that. There have been some minor trades, some expected deals around the Qualifying Offer deadline, and some new deals signed by free agents with their current teams. But as for free agents signing with new teams or significant trades? The kinds of deals with think about when we think about “the offseason”? There have been just two of each, and I might be stretching the definition of “significant” on that second one if you don’t think a year of Gio Urshela or Hunter Renfroe is “significant.”
The two signings – Carlos Santana to the Pirates on a one-year deal and Tyler Anderson to the Angels on a three-year deal – were also not exactly massive. But that’s it for free agents changing teams so far this offseason. Slow.
But our sense of what is “typical” is just so screwed up by the last half-decade of evolution in the sport and one-off market-impacting events. Last year, the market was REALLY active at this point, but that’s because a lockout loomed at the start of December, so the movement was, in a lot of ways, artificial. The year before, we were in the first year of a global pandemic that had cost most of the season, crushed revenues, and left tremendous uncertainty about what the next year would bring. And in the few years before that, we were seeing teams (and players?) increasingly willing to wait muuuuch longer in the offseason before making moves. Remember the freeze out? The whispers of collusion? The idea that free agents would have to start their own Spring Training?
So that is to say, maybe this year is actually just the new normal? Like, the normal that had taken hold before the pandemic? And the days of more than just a couple transactions in November are long past?
Well, looking back at 2015 through 2019, yes, actually, this year has been completely normal. In those years, almost without exception, only a couple significant signings and/or trades happened before the very end of November or the very start of December, when things finally started to pick up. The days of more than a few big moves in November are now almost a decade old. It’s time to calibrate to a new normal, which makes this past month kinda painful, but COULD make the Winter Meetings as exciting as it used to be. Unless, of course, that part of the offseason is slow, too …
Here’s the thing, though: this year is different from those 2015-2019 years in one really big way: this year, the non-tender deadline is already waaaay past. As I type, it was nine days ago. Before this year, the non-tender deadline was always on December 2, and was cited as among the major reasons activity didn’t really accelerate until early December. After all, if teams didn’t know the full composition of the free agent class, there were risks in inking players too early.
That means, clearly, the non-tender deadline was NOT a major factor in slowing things down this year, and it starts to become a little questionable whether it was ever a major holdup.
So what *IS* the major holdup this year? I can only assume it’s at least partly related the continued proliferation of analytics, which homogenizes the “value” teams perceive in various free agents (and the way the agents and players more accurately value themselves), which means there are fewer and fewer obvious “deals” out there that one specific team wants to pounce on.
Then, without any kind of real time constraints on signing beyond the human factors – holidays, wanting the security of a job, knowing where you’re going to live next year, etc. – teams are perfectly content to wait as long as it takes. There’s much less pressure on them to hurry in this system than it is on the players, and we know modern front offices are going to accept every tiny edge afforded them. The offers stay low, the players keep shooting high, and the heels get dug in.
Fortunately, the dam will break eventually, and there will be ripple effect of deals. Because while there isn’t any urgency now based on time, there will, at some point, be urgency based on available players. That tends to be why we see some related-ish transactions take place within a tight window, because players in free agency (and trade) are a limited resource. You miss on option 1A and you might suddenly feel a lot of pressure to hustle and get something done on 1B, because maybe at that position, for you, there is no 1C.
… but someone’s gotta go first in those situations. A player. A team. Or both. It kinda just depends on a lot of interrelated factors, and kinda comes back to the idea that there is no ACTUAL clear time pressure in late November or early December.
Maybe that means some kind of signing deadline could be a good idea, but understand why players have resisted it, knowing that teams would be the ones better positioned to use a deadline to hold down prices in the aggregate. It’s not exactly the same thing, but part of the reason the other major sports’ signing periods go so hard and so fast is because they are salary-capped leagues (which, by design, hold down prices). Time pressure is simply not going to favor the players as a group, even if a small handful of them might have enough leverage to really push teams up to the brink.
All that is to say, I guess I just return to the opening discussion here about the new normal. Until and unless something changes – and clearly, changing the non-tender deadline wasn’t it – we’re just going to have to continue to expect suuuuuuper slow Novembers, and hope for reasonably active Decembers, all while knowing that a whole lot of transacting is going to bleed into January and February, and even into Spring Training.
This year’s Winter Meetings will kick off a week from today, as executives and agents start arriving in San Diego …