This offseason featured two of MLB’s most talented free agents ever, and yet the class as a whole felt weak. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were exceptional, and Patrick Corbin did alright for himself, but it was a meager showing compared to what had been anticipated eagerly since at least 2015. That came off a winter where 13 free agents commanded deals guaranteeing $70 million or more, including seven over $100 million. This year, just three eclipsed either number - the names listed above.
The way teams have stifled the market has played a role in that shift, assuredly, but it’s also become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Just yesterday, Mike Trout mentioned speaking with and watching Harper and Machado attempt to navigate free agency and wanting no part of the market. It was a major part of why the league’s best player took a record extension that still vastly undersells his production, and assuredly plays a role in why numerous talented players over the past couple years have opted for seemingly-discounted extensions in favor of waiting to reach the market.
All of this returns us to the Mariners, who went out of their way to emphasize financial flexibility in their deals this winter. The contract of Robinson Canó was an imposing one, and Jean Segura was also paid eight figures. But in dealing them, along with one-year salary dumps like Juan Nicasio, the M’s made a concerted effort to shed salary paired with talents like Edwin Díaz and James Pazos that raised eyebrows from fans and analysts.
Yes, Jarred Kelenic, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, and J.P. Crawford are alliteratively talented, but surely a team so high on its own player development would want to maximize the talent it infused its system with, right? Instead, what Seattle has chosen is financial flexibility, and the intent to set themselves up for spending aggressively in the future to augment their young core.
Dipoto points out that payroll in '19 will still be in the 140's. As for future spending, "We feel we put ourselves in the position that when our young players are on the field that team can use the free agents to finish a team, rather than build one."— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) December 4, 2018
It’s not an outlandish plan. I was exasperated at the time and remain so, but in several conversations with staff writer Grant Bronsdon, I came to the acknowledgment of potential merit. From a $/WAR (or the reportedly increasingly common in front offices $/Wins Above Average) perspective, paying dead money on a player’s contract for another team’s in exchange for a prospect essentially means you’re paying that prospect to outperform the dead money rate. However, Grant argued you might be just as well served paying a free agent that money for a more likely immediate performance. That mentality, in some capacity, is what Dipoto seems to have argued for this winter.
The trouble is that with a rash of extensions following two of the most dismal free agent markets in league history, players are turtling up as we draw close to the end of the CBA after the 2021 season. Just like the fabled 2018-19 class that never was, the next several classes already are thinning, and it’s hard to remain confident that the players expected to be there will arrive. This winter (and many in this past week) we’ve seen Alex Bregman, Chris Sale, Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, and Blake Snell sign extensions pushing their next shot at free agency beyond 2023-24. Veteran aces like Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and David Price chose extensions or opting into their contracts over impending free agency this year, much as Masahiro Tanaka and Johnny Cueto did last offseason. It’s mildly speculative, but after being taken to the woodshed by the owners the in the past few CBAs, it’s easy to see why players would continue opting for the security of below-market extensions over waiting for a free agency payday that might never come, or for an adjusted CBA that might not move the needle without a strike.
Dipoto’s assertion has been that by midway through 2020 and certainly by 2021, the team will be looking to contend again. Without additions or immaculate player development, that seems aggressive, but it’s the official public stance. In the 2020-21 offseason, the list remains deep for now, but the ages of the players arriving in free agency may be the argument against investing yet again.
Among the notable position players, at the ages they’ll be by then, there’s C J.T. Realmuto (30), 3B/1B Matt Carpenter (35), 3B Justin Turner (36), SS Andrelton Simmons (31), OF Mookie Betts (28), OF George Springer (31), and OF Yoenis Cespedes (35).
For starting pitchers, RHP Jacob DeGrom (33), RHP Trevor Bauer (30), LHP Jose Quintana (32), LHP James Paxton (32), RHP Masahiro Tanaka (32), RHP Jake Arrieta (35), and RHP Marcus Stroman (30).
Sans Trout, it’s still a tantalizing group, even if the ages are almost all led by the dreaded number three. But three years ago, this winter’s crop was the one expected to have it all, and by the end of 2020 it’s likely this looks far thinner. Seattle’s rebuild is based on augmenting their core with players from the group above, but the thinner that pool grows, the more limited their options become in using their financial flexibility. A lot can change in three years; In 2015 we thought free agency was on a perpetual upward trajectory. Now it’s spiraling out of favor. But this past week thinned the Mariners’ options, and I fear over the next two years they’ll only get slimmer.