Hoornstra: MLB free agency isn’t back; it’s resisting the middle ground

first_imgSAN DIEGO — In an unusual example of art imitating life, the cover of MLB The Show ’20 was revealed on Oct. 21. Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez is the featured player.Sony didn’t announce Bryce Harper as its cover boy until Nov. 2 of last year. He didn’t have a team, or a jersey. Harper wore a black and white hoodie and held a shiny, unmarked bat. As much as he symbolized a game, or an attitude, Harper’s necessarily nondescript facade symbolized a potential labor crisis.That seems like more than a year ago. For a fan, it isn’t enough for your team’s general manager to feel pressure. It helps to see some manifestation of that pressure – some sense that, unless we can offload an extra $12.5 million before leaving the Winter Meetings, we might not leave here with the best pitcher in baseball, and if that requires trading our most recent first-round draft pick to San Francisco, OK. Get me Farhan Zaidi on line one.So it went in San Diego. Teams must do more than break banks for free agency to stir our feelings. They need to break hearts. This week, they did both. Angels’ Shohei Ohtani spending downtime working in outfield Newsroom GuidelinesNews TipsContact UsReport an Error Just as every free-agent class holds a different group of players, the teams in play for free agents change from year to year. The White Sox were suitors for Machado a year ago, but their best offer fell short of the Padres, who were a bit farther along in their rebuilding process.This year, the White Sox set the market for catchers by signing Grandal to a four-year, $73 million contract on Nov. 21. Their emerging young core fueled a surge from 62 to 72 wins in 2019. With their window for contention expanding, perhaps their front office grew more willing to spend big and spend early.The same could be said for the Reds and Moustakas, who agreed to a reported four-year, $64 million contract on Dec. 2. Cincinnati jumped from 67 to 75 wins, with a chance to climb further up the NL Central ranks in 2020.For both Grandal and Moustakas, it was their first multi-year contract as a free agent. Both had been tendered and declined qualifying offers in the past. Any team that signs a player who declined a qualifying offer must surrender a draft pick the following June. In a market with limited demand, that matters a lot.It’s possible, then, that the lack of free-agent fervor the past two offseasons was largely driven by timing. Maybe large-market teams like the Yankees, Dodgers and Angels were waiting for the right players to hit the market before ratcheting up a bidding war. Maybe small-market GMs wanted to see their clubs emerge from a non-competitive turn in their lifecycle before swimming in the big pool. Call it tanking, call it rebuilding – when enough teams sink in tandem, the market for good players usually falls through.Positional availability matters, too. The supply of front-line starting pitchers is unusually robust right now. Consider the rarity of Cole and Strasburg, two pitchers in their prime who dominated the regular season, then the World Series, becoming free agents in the same year. It’s hard to imagine their markets would not have emerged even in the fallow winters of 2017-18 and 2018-19.Related Articles Jose Suarez’s rocky start sinks Angels in loss to Astros Harvard-Westlake alum Lucas Giolito throws no-hitter for White Sox center_img The New York Yankees don’t have a monopoly on this – witness the Diamondbacks’ all-in push for Zack Greinke in 2015, or the Padres signing Manny Machado a year ago – but those Bronx bucks do seem particularly polarizing.Most of these thoughts hold echoes of winters past – just not the last two. Measured by the number of transactions, 2017-18 and 2018-19 were the least active offseasons of the decade. By pace, they were slower too. In 2018, January replaced December as the offseason’s busiest month. Several marquee free agent signings (Harper, Machado, Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta) spilled into February and March, and spending on player payroll declined for the first time since 2010.The cumulative effect was a narrative that free agency was “broken,” enough to threaten labor peace and prompt veteran players to speak openly – if not always on the record – about the viability of a strike. (The current CBA expires after the 2021 season.) The past month has challenged this narrative.If the offseason were a nine-inning game of baseball, we would be in the top of the fourth. Several star players have already signed, unlike this time a year ago. Anthony Rendon, Madison Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu, to name just a few, still don’t know where they’re playing in 2020. It’s too soon to author a complete recap of where free agency stands.Doing so is tempting. Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas received a combined $824 million. Add up all the free agent contracts signed since the season ended, and the players are literally a billion dollars richer. These contracts make it difficult to reconcile what we’ve seen in San Diego with what we observed this time a year ago, and in 2017. But I’ll try. Dodgers’ Will Smith: ‘I feel like it’s been five years’ since his 2019 debut Now consider second base. After Moustakas left the board, Howie Kendrick quickly re-signed with the Nationals. Since then, the market stalled with seven serviceable-or-better second basemen still available: Brian Dozier, Starlin Castro, Cesar Hernandez, Neil Walker, Eric Sogard, Brock Holt and Jonathan Schoop.None of them are likely to receive a multi-year deal, so they’ll be on the market again next year with Kendrick, D.J. LeMahieu and Kolten Wong. There simply isn’t that much demand for serviceable second basemen in any year. Schoop was a 1.6-WAR player last year and just turned 28. If his market never emerges, it doesn’t mean the entire system of free agency is broken. It could mean that a) contending teams who need a second baseman can afford to be patient, since there will still be a serviceable second baseman available in a week or two, and b) non-contending teams know the same group of players will be available in a year – along with two even better players at the same position – when they might be more willing to spend.Free agents might not be in for a long famine or an annual feast. Just as individual teams commit hard to a long-term contract or a long-term rebuild, the next offseason might resist the middle ground. Even the good people at PlayStation headquarters won’t know which path we’re headed down until it’s too late. Angels offense breaks out to split doubleheader with Astros last_img read more