The calendar says January, but the list of remaining free agents looks a lot like it did when the MLB season ended in November. From a less-than-stellar crop of free agents to teams with an eye on next year’s superstar class and a certain agent holding many of the cards this winter, there are plenty of reasons for a cold stove that has to heat up.
We asked ESPN.com writers Bradford Doolittle, Sam Miller and David Schoenfield to explain the slow pace of free agency and make predictions about what will happen when things finally get moving.
What is the biggest factor causing the slow pace of free agency this winter?
Bradford Doolittle: It’ll be an interesting postmortem when the dust finally settles, but I suspect it’s the 2018 free-agent class that is gumming the works. That has kept the Yankees and Dodgers in check, which muddles the top of this market, and all is a result of the new collective bargaining agreement. But maybe the biggest factor of all is that this isn’t a great class and teams are just more savvy than ever when it comes to spending money efficiently.
David Schoenfield: It’s all about the money. The players are asking for too much, and the teams don’t want to pay them. Of course, that’s usually the case, but even the top players are flawed this winter. The best starting pitcher has a Tommy John surgery in his past and just came off two terrible starts in the World Series. The best bat is a corner outfielder with limited defensive value who is now 30 years old. And Yu Darvish and J.D. Martinez may still end up with $150 million contracts.
Sam Miller: The biggest factor is the redesigned competitive balance tax (CBT), which has really found its teeth under the latest collective bargaining agreement. The CBT doesn’t affect most teams, of course, but if you take away the biggest spenders on the market, it has direct and indirect consequences on the whole market: There’s less money going around and less leverage for agents to play teams off each other, and more interest in cost-controlled trade targets that further reduce the free agents’ leverage. I read more Gerrit Cole rumors than Yu Darvish rumors, and Cole didn’t seem to be remotely available until the cost-cutting Yankees basically forced his name into trade considerations.
I doubt the CBT will be this stifling every winter. It just so happens that the Dodgers, Yankees and Giants are fairly desperate to get under the thresholds for at least one season. And it just so happens that the 2018-2019 free-agent class is looming.
How much do you think teams are prioritizing next year’s free-agent class over spending this offseason?
Doolittle: As mentioned, I think it’s clearly impacting the strategies of the Yankees and Dodgers. Not sure it’s directly true of any other teams, but if the richest teams aren’t spending, it puts a drag at the top end of the market. That has to have a trickle-down effect.
Miller: It seems likely that a couple teams are clearing the books for luxury tax purposes, knowing they’ll likely go over the threshold next winter — the more years in a row a team is over the threshold, the higher the penalty. But J.D. Martinez or Yu Darvish shouldn’t be any less attractive to teams this year than they’d be in next year’s free-agent class. If anything, teams that wait might regret it: There could be a ton of buyers next year, with the tax-reset Yankees and Dodgers joined by big- or mid-market teams like the Phillies, White Sox, Braves and Tigers coming out of rebuilds looking to spend big. I doubt anybody gets a better deal on a high-profile free agent next winter than the Angels did getting Zack Cozart out of a quiet market this winter.
Heck, Mike Moustakas is talking about taking a one-year deal to go back on the market next winter. He’s not saying that because he thinks he’ll cost less next year, but more.
Schoenfield: That’s no doubt a factor. Next year’s class not only includes Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and Charlie Blackmon, but likely Clayton Kershaw after he opts out. It’s also much deeper, meaning there could actually be more bargains to be had, at least in comparison to this year.
Overall, do you think Scott Boras’ willingness to wait so long into the offseason for deals helps or hurts his players?
Schoenfield: His strategy has worked in the past. Max Scherzer signed in January 2015 for $210 million, although a significant portion of that is deferred. Prince Fielder signed late in January 2012 for $214 million with the Tigers, when there didn’t even appear to be other significant bidders. Boras duped the Orioles into giving Chris Davis $160 million, signing in late January of 2016. The recent reports that Eric Hosmer has been offered $140 million by the Padres and $147 million by the Royals suggest that Boras will once again get his guy the money.
Miller: I don’t think there’s anything Boras does that I’d presume hurts his players. There are individual cases we can point to in which ultimately no big deal materialized, but he usually gets his contract. Furthermore, he has established over the years that his threats to wait are credible, giving him more leverage throughout the offseason. It’s like playing chicken against a guy who has played chicken 100 times and never jumped off.
Doolittle: In the aggregate, it helps. His track record proves that. There are losers in the Boras-verse, guys who run out of good options. But the proof is in the Boras pudding.
Will we see another blockbuster trade this month, or are teams finally turning their attention to free agency?
Miller: For what it’s worth, it’s probably less “are teams finally turning their attention to free agency” than “are a handful of free agents finally willing to accept 96 cents on the dollar to sign?” Whether they are or not, I’d expect at least one more blockbuster trade. There are still good players on teams that are not acting like buyers, and those players tend to get moved.
Doolittle: I think we’ll still see one or two impactful trades. The Marlins still have pruning to do, and some teams — the Blue Jays and Pirates come to mind — haven’t really declared themselves yet this winter. Neither is in the position to enter spring training status quo.
Schoenfield: I wouldn’t expect Machado or Donaldson to be dealt, but you have to think Christian Yelich and maybe J.T. Realmuto are in play. Teams such as the Dodgers or Braves, with a deep farm system, would love to have Yelich and his team-friendly contract and might pay a ransom in prospects to acquire him. The Pirates have made it pretty clear that Gerrit Cole is available and maybe the Giants go for Andrew McCutchen.
Which team still most needs to make a splash this hot stove season?
Schoenfield: The Rockies and Diamondbacks are coming off postseason trips, but haven’t done anything to improve their teams. The Rockies have spent a lot of money on the bullpen, but I’m not sure the bullpen is any better, as they’re mostly just replacing other free agents. Meanwhile, the offense is mediocre, with big holes at first base and corner outfield. They’re apparently rolling the dice on young guys … and Ian Desmond. The Diamondbacks will likely lose Martinez but haven’t replaced his offense.
Miller: The Rockies’ so-called super ‘pen doesn’t seem all that super to me either, so if that’s their plan to make the next leap I’m skeptical. A bunch of remaining free agents — Lorenzo Cain especially — seem like beautiful fits, and as they stand the Rockies might actually be one really good player short of the postseason.
Doolittle: After going through every team yesterday, I was kind of surprised to really point to only the Nationals as that kind of a team. The factors that put them in this category are unusual — Bryce Harper’s impending free agency, the strength of the Dodgers and Cubs in the same league. But Washington is positioned to benefit exponentially by one more big move. Other teams, I think, can wait and see how the first half of the seasons unfold.
Which teams do you think will be most active in free agency over the next month?
Doolittle: Twins, Brewers and Rangers.
Schoenfield: The Cubs will sign a starting pitcher — Darvish or Jake Arrieta or maybe Alex Cobb — and the Rangers have money to spend and holes in the rotation and maybe DH/corner outfield. The Cardinals will add another bullpen arm or two and there’s a plausible scenario in which they sign Hosmer and move Matt Carpenter to third base and Jedd Gyorko to a utility role. The Astros have a little money to spend, albeit no obvious holes, but they could be a surprise landing spot for Darvish. The Mets and Braves have some payroll room if they want to spend it now, and the Blue Jays need to add at least one outfield bat.
Miller: Again, depends on whether players start to accept slightly less money and the free-agent market starts to look like a place to get good discounts a year ahead of time. If so, I could see the Phillies getting really fresh. Otherwise, the Cubs.
J.D. Martinez and the Red Sox seem like a perfect fit. Why hasn’t a deal happened yet, or will it?
Miller: It doesn’t seem like thaaaaat great a fit, to be honest. DHs rarely are. It’s a fine fit. It makes sense. Everybody would be really happy at the media conference. But it’s not so obvious you definitely want to lock it in for seven years.
It’ll probably happen.
Doolittle: My suspicion is that Mr. Boras’ vision of Martinez’s value is not closely enough aligned with that of the Red Sox. Boras needs another team to get serious in bidding for him. There is nothing compelling the Red Sox to enter into a bad value deal. They are a playoff team with or without Martinez and can wait until the season to add a power threat. Nevertheless, I don’t see a lot of great options for Martinez, so I think a deal with Boston will eventually get done — more on the team’s terms than those of Boras.
Schoenfield: Boras is waiting for another team to enter the bidding, but the market for Martinez at $150-plus million just doesn’t appear to be there. National League teams are worried about a guy who may have to DH in a couple years, the Cardinals already added a big outfield bat in Marcell Ozuna, the Yankees aren’t exactly lacking for power-hitting corner outfielders. Maybe the Blue Jays or Rangers make a late bid, but Martinez to Boston seems like the obvious landing spot.
Where do you think the two aces in this market, Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, will sign?
Doolittle: Darvish with the Angels and Arrieta with the Cubs.
Miller: Angels and Cubs.
Schoenfield: Let’s go Darvish to the Cubs and Arrieta to the Rangers. The Twins are a sleeper for either guy.
How many of the Royals’ big three free agents — Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain — will end up returning to Kansas City?
Miller: Zero of them.
Doolittle: One — Hosmer.
Schoenfield: I think Hosmer is the only guy who may return, as the Royals are clearly hoping to build the next Kansas City playoff team around him based on that $147 million contract.
Will the Marlins make another major trade before Opening Day?
Doolittle: Yep. Christian Yelich and J.T. Realmuto understandably don’t want any part of that sham in Miami, and it’s in the Marlins’ interest to complete their sell-off before the season starts. The amity down there is festering, so the sooner the wound is cauterized, the better. Why generate another fresh round of animus later in the season? Plus, with the value those two have, Miami can actually get back an elite prospect to serve as the face of the rebuilding scheme.
Miller: Yes. Two, even, but probably not three.
Schoenfield: Let’s go with Yelich to the Braves. When Alex Anthopoulos was GM of the Blue Jays, he never shied away from the blockbuster trades. The Braves need an outfielder, and a trio of Yelich, Ender Inciarte and rookie stud Ronald Acuna would be super exciting.