Major league teams open camps this week under the most unusual of circumstances. For a variety of reasons, there are an unprecedented number of quality free agents remaining unsigned, including nine of FanGraphs' top-20-rated free agents. For a reference point, 19 of FanGraphs' top 20 free agents had signed by Jan. 23 last offseason. The Yankees and Dodgers have combined to spend just $12 million on free agents, which speaks to a number of the factors at play: the influence of a more punitive luxury tax, the seemingly uniform belief clubs have in the inefficiency of free-agent spending and teams holding back cash to court the talent available in next year's historic class.
The game is in an era of extremes. A record number of home runs were hit last season, the product of increased launch angles, a willingness to trade contact for power -- and perhaps a juiced ball. By FanGraphs' PITCHf/x data, velocity has increased every year since 2008. Relievers continue to soak up more and more innings. Even the way teams are constructed has become more extreme. More teams are being rebuilt in a more dramatic manner, in an NBA-like tanking fashion following the path of the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros. There are a growing number of have-nots and superteams. For example, eight teams posted run differentials of 100 runs or greater last season; in 2011, 2012 and 2014, only four teams exceeded 100-plus run differentials. But in the same season, on the negative side of the ledger, nine teams had run differentials of minus-90 or worse in 2017, the most since 2007.
The game is at an unusual place, and because of it, there are contending teams -- and some teams in that middle ground that could contend -- with considerable question marks that remain unaddressed as spring training approaches. The good news? There is still time to answer these questions, and there is plenty of talent available.