Technically, free agency in Major League Baseball began Sunday evening. There was no deluge of activity like the NBA or NFL offer, no dopamine hit of excitement and activity and possibility to start the MLB offseason. Nothing then. Nothing since. And, team officials, agents and players say, nothing particularly substantive anytime soon, either.
There may be the odd free-agent signing or a trade that comes together out of necessity converging with impatience, but this is a perfect storm of transactional paralysis. It's all here, clear as day. The march toward it began long ago, even before the pandemic hit, though that has exacerbated it. Consider the convergence of the following.
- A tempestuous relationship between players and owners
- Teams finding success in squeezing salaries by waiting out free agents
- The consistent (but unverified) claim that owners lost billions of dollars playing games in 2020
- The unknown financial future caused by the coronavirus
- Last week
What happened last week?
This is the part where you're supposed to say this is 20 Questions on everything you need to know about the beginning of this offseason. Did you really skip that part?
Fine. So, last week. Something that, in hindsight, shouldn't have been particularly surprising, but in the moment it registered as another warning that this offseason is not normal. It started with the Cleveland Indians putting Brad Hand on waivers.
Hand is 30. This season, he pitched 22 innings with a 29-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and didn't allow a home run. His ERA was 2.05. Hand's stuff has regressed, but his 2020, in traditional statistics and metrics that isolate a pitcher's performance, was spectacular. The Indians held a $10 million option on him. By placing him on waivers, they were not only saying they wanted to cut him loose but that they didn't want to pay the $1 million buyout, either.
And in a sport starved for bullpen help, a sport with a collective reliever ERA of 4.44, nobody claimed Hand. Any of the 29 other teams could have had him without giving anyone up. Not a single one was willing to spend $10 million for one year on a top-notch reliever.
There were others. The Tampa Bay Rays declined Charlie Morton's option at $15 million, the St. Louis Cardinals Kolten Wong's at $12.5 million, the Pittsburgh Pirates Chris Archer's at $11 million, the Washington Nationals Adam Eaton's at $10.5 million, the New York Yankees Brett Gardner's at $10 million. Jon Lester and Corey Kluber: not picked up, off to free agency. Even Mitch Moreland, whose $3 million option would have been pennies for a veteran of his ilk in past years, was cut loose.
Only nine players had club options exercised. Nearly 40 options were declined.
What does this say?
Well, it depends. Players and agents were instantaneously skeptical. This was just another ploy, like commissioner Rob Manfred doing an interview during the World Series in which he claimed MLB owners were taking on large levels of debt. Businessmen accruing debt to build wealth is nothing new, of course, but Manfred, in their eyes, attempted to frame it as another reason teams would not spend heavily in free agency this winter. Between that, and teams laying off hundreds of employees, and questions about next year -- much more on that later -- it was resembling the word that keeps getting thrown around by executives and players.
Evocative, right? And hyperbolic, too. But some players are scared. They're scared that teams in 2020 showed a clear willingness to turn to players with next to no experience and throw them right into the big leagues. They're scared that they might be the one left standing in the game of musical chairs. They're afraid that if they don't take any deal -- even one that doesn't represent their worth -- there might not be a deal at all.
Welcome to the 2020-21 winter. If you ask owners, their financial situation is awful. If you ask players, it's nowhere near as bad as owners say. The market won't be a perfect arbiter of which is closer to the truth, but it certainly should offer some data points, especially at the top end.
While teams are telling agents they still don't have their budgets, one GM outlined what his past year has looked like, and it is frightening for players. Before the pandemic hit, his owner had told him to prepare for a payroll in the $170 million range. By July, when it became clear revenues would not come close to what the team had projected, that number dropped by about $50 million. Today, it's closer to $100 million.
Some executives look at free agents through that lens. If Trevor Bauer were to seek a one-year deal in a normal year? He might get $40 million to $45 million, one GM suggested. In this world? Probably more like $30 million to $35 million, if that.
Wait. So Trevor Bauer really is going to sign a one-year deal?
Not so fast. Bauer is doing what Bauer loves to do, which is look at a system, find its weaknesses and upend it. That goes for information about his free agency -- he has directed anyone who cares to follow the social channels of his agent, Rachel Luba, for accurate information -- as well as his approach to the market.
Bauer's idea of going year-to-year once he hit free agency started as a bet with his best friend that he made shortly after he was drafted. If he ever signed a multiyear deal, Bauer said, the friend could stand 10 feet away with a paintball gun and shoot him in the absolute worst place possible to be shot with a paintball gun from 10 feet away.
There was a deeper point, though. Bauer believed in the notion of maximizing one's value, and, theoretically, that is done best in mercenary mode. Sign a one-year deal, provide immense value and do it again and again, with increasingly larger deals that add up to far more than a long-term contract would provide.
Problem is, Bauer is probably going to win the National League Cy Young Award. The never-been-hurt 30-year-old coming off a Cy Young season is a recipe for a most excellent multiyear deal. And as stubborn as Bauer can be, there is a streak in him that cares about what his actions mean for fellow players. His desire to grow baseball is real. His intentions to do right by other players are legitimate.
Luba tweeted that Bauer is open to any kind of deal. This may take a while.
Why don't the Mets just sign him right now?
Of course! The Mets should sign everyone. Steve Cohen is worth $14 billion, and because Mets fans have suffered for so long, he's going to spend $14 billion to win a World Series!
Because the notion that Steve Cohen, whose brilliance in finding undervalued assets and leveraging them made him a billionaire, is suddenly going to go hog wild in free agency, which front offices believe offers the single worst return on investment of any dollar spent in the entire baseball operations system, is absolutely ridiculous.
It's true: Cohen, who is expected to close on his deal to buy the Mets from the Wilpon family within a week or so, could throw a few hundred million at catcher J.T. Realmuto, outfielder George Springer and Bauer, clearly the three best free agents on the market this winter, and instantaneously make the Mets a much better team. One agent believes Cohen could be the only antidote to the offseason moving at a snail's pace: "He could just jump the line and start it up," one agent said.
As much as that sounds like wishful thinking, Cohen already said he would restore the salaries of Mets employees who took pay cuts -- a pledge he valued at $7 million -- and extend another $2.5 million to seasonal employees to receive in monthly $500 increments through Opening Day.
Fine. What should the Mets do?
Cohen clearly is going to spend. But the notion of focusing that money on free agency is just incredibly dated. As much as people were laughing at the Boston Red Sox during the World Series for trading Mookie Betts to give themselves financial flexibility, in a moment when maybe one-third of the teams in baseball fancy themselves as spenders, financial flexibility actually is a massive asset.
There are limits on what the Mets can do in the draft, what they can do internationally, what they can do to build up a farm system to the level of the best teams. If the Mets get creative, they can take on a player with a bad contract -- and there are plenty of teams looking to shed them -- but the price of doing so is to demand good, young talent in return.
If owners' financial states are as dire as they're proclaiming -- and if it gives a team the ability to use that money in a better fashion rather than simply pocket it -- they could jump at it. There is no shortage of terrible deals, or at least ones with large price tags.
Perhaps there's an aversion to this idea because the Mets once did it in arguably the worst fashion imaginable, eating Robinson Cano's contract to get Edwin Diaz ... and giving up Jarred Kelenic, a top-10 prospect in the whole game, and right-hander Justin Dunn.
So there are teams that might spend. Who?
The Mets for sure. The Toronto Blue Jays want to be more than a No. 8 seed in the playoffs. The San Francisco Giants are starting to turn the corner in their rebuild and have a very creative front office. The Detroit Tigers want to give new manager AJ Hinch more to work with. The Minnesota Twins, to maintain their place amid the top of the AL Central, have some payroll space. The Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays each cleared big salaries off their books and could get inventive with the money.
There may be others. Budgets are a real concern, particularly if the season doesn't start on time. (Seriously, more on that eventually.)
What's the next big thing to happen?
By 5 p.m. on Nov. 11, the six players given a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer must accept it or reject it.
Realmuto, Springer, Bauer and Yankees infielder DJ LeMahieu are primed to reject it. Two pitchers -- the Giants' Kevin Gausman and the Mets' Marcus Stroman -- received it and could consider accepting it. Gausman is the likelier of the two to work out a long-term deal. Most teams see Stroman as the best non-Bauer pitcher in the class, though by the time next season starts, it will have been 18 months since he threw a pitch in a major league game.
Agent Brodie Scoffield, who represents Gausman and Stroman, may have the hardest job of anyone right now: figure out the market for both when teams seem entirely disinclined to create a market of any kind. The risk: In a weak free-agent class, two potential impact arms are gone just like that.
When will movement actually start?
Probably after Thanksgiving. Teams are especially loath to act because they don't know how many more players are going to become available via non-tenders. By Dec. 2, every team must decide whether to offer a contract to players in their first six years of service time. Ones not tendered a contract -- because of production, projected price or both -- are free agents. The market feels flooded already, and it's bound to get worse.
Oh, and there are usually a few trades leading up to the tender deadline, so there's that.
What is the free-agent market going to look like a month from now, when the winter meetings were supposed to begin?
There's a consensus that mid-tier players are going to get absolutely wiped out. It's a scary reality that has manifested itself with others over the past few years. Few get to leave baseball of their own volition anymore. Free agency retires them.
Even with that shifting reality in years past, the top of the class always seems to do well. Remember at last year's meetings, when Gerrit Cole signed for $324 million and Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon got $245 million each? Zack Wheeler got $118 million and Josh Donaldson $92 million and Madison Bumgarner $85 million.
This year's meetings are canceled (or reduced to a virtual variety), and the more the owners protest, the likelier it is Realmuto or Springer or Bauer just sit back and wait. They're the talent. It's up to the teams to convince them to join. And if that means they're sitting around past Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's Day, sometimes it takes that to extract true value.
LeMahieu and shortstop Marcus Semien are among those who could join Stroman and Gausman on the quicker side of choices.
What's the best position available?
Don't freaking remind me.
Answer the question.
There isn't a great answer.
The selection of starters is decent. Beyond the qualifying-offer guys, there is intrigue. Morton showed during the postseason that he still can be great in big games. Jake Odorizzi was hurt for most of 2020 but has been durable and quite effective in previous seasons -- and actually has seen his stuff tick up as he's gotten older. Along with Taijuan Walker, he's an upside play. Another: Archer, who never found himself in Pittsburgh and is looking to rekindle his career. Finally, the olds: Adam Wainwright, Rich Hill, Corey Kluber, Mike Minor and Jon Lester, the latter of whom bought $47,000 worth of beer for Chicago fans over the weekend and probably deserves to go to the Hall of Fame now.
Two other positions: Second base (LeMahieu, Wong, Tommy La Stella, Cesar Hernandez, Jonathan Schoop and Kiké Hernandez) and designated hitter (Nelson Cruz and Michael Brantley). Second has nice depth. DH is simply two incredible hitters.
Is the DH even happening in the NL next year?
Still unclear. Players want it, sources said, but owners want the players to agree to expanded playoffs for the 2021 season in exchange. Understandably, the players don't find that to be a particularly equitable trade. The complicating factor is that most front offices would love it. Going back to pitchers hitting after a full season in which they didn't doesn't register right, particularly when the issue is going to be adjudicated for good in a new collective-bargaining agreement after the 2021 season.
Some executives believe the universal DH will stick around, even if the MLBPA doesn't agree to the expanded playoffs. What MLB would trade it for is unclear.
Did you say trade?
You are so lame.
Ah, yes, the good ol' who's-getting-traded prompt, as seen in 20 Questions throughout the 2019-20 offseason. Those included Betts, and it turns out that he was the right answer.
This time around, there is no clear and obvious choice, no this-guy's-absolutely-gonna-go -- not yet at least. So the answer is probably a tie between Lindor and Bryant. And that's as much because of timing as anything. Lindor and Bryant both are free agents after the 2021 season. Both will make in excess of $20 million in arbitration. Lindor plays for an Indians team that almost always tries to maximize a player's value, and with Lindor not having signed a contract extension, that typically means he'll be traded. Bryant plays for a Cubs team that believes it needs a shake-up. And shipping him away may be that very move.
The Rockies find themselves in a position of their own making with Arenado. He's coming off the roughest offensive season of his career, and while 2021 should afford players opportunities to show that pandemic baseball may well represent an outlier, no team is going to give up anything substantive for Arenado at this juncture. Over the next six years, Arenado, 29, is owed $199 million. That's a lot of money for a player coming off a great year. For someone who isn't -- and someone with an opt-out after '21, which he's unlikely to take but still brings risk -- it's a nonstarter.
You're a baseball nerd. What's the nerdiest offseason story I don't know about?
You are unbelievably rude and yet so on point that I'm not even mad. That's because I'm utterly fascinated by what's happening with arbitration this winter. Quick arbitration CliffsNotes: Every player with at least three years of major league service but fewer than six has his salary determined in the arbitration process. He asks for a salary he wants. The team offers a salary itself. If they can agree on a middle ground, they settle. If not, they go to a winner-takes-all hearing that relies on statistics and comparable players.
Well, guess what: In a comp-based system, it is extremely difficult to have one of the seasons include only 60 games. That's barely one-third of the time to make starts in a regular-season game or hit home runs in a regular-season game. And those are the stats you're supposed to use?
Is that as much of a mess as it sounds like?
Yeah, pretty much. And it happened because the arguing for months between MLB and the MLBPA after the pandemic hit was not resolved amicably.
Remember that? The players arguing that they were entitled to their full prorated salaries. MLB saying otherwise. The players holding firm, even if a more financially lucrative deal was potentially there for them at slightly less than that pro rata. The league making the same offer three different ways. The entire thing was a mess. And an actual system to make up for the shortened season could have been negotiated into a deal. Only one never was struck. Manfred imposed a 60-game season, and the parties reverted to their March agreement, which said: "(T)he parties will discuss in good faith the possibility of designing an alternative system or methodology for determining the 2021 salaries for arbitration-eligible players."
The sides, sources said, have talked. There is no alternative system, and with a union meeting set for Thursday to discuss arbitration with agents, some are coming to grips with the idea that there won't be one, either.
The consequences aren't clear. Perhaps players can find a way to argue around the degradation of counting stats. If they can't, they stand to collectively lose tens of millions of dollars in arbitration compared to what they would've received had there been a deal with a statistical multiplier or some other form of representing the shortened season. Just another 2020 mess.
Kind of like the Angels?
The rudeness is real ... and warranted.
I just want them to get Mike Trout some pitching.
First they need to get a general manager. Los Angeles fired Billy Eppler and then let the contracts of his assistants, Jonathan Strangio and Steve Martone, expire. With free agency underway, three agents asked the same question: Who, exactly, is running things? The answer seems to be director of baseball operations Andrew Ball, but former Angels GM Bill Stoneman is around, as is team president John Carpino. And manager Joe Maddon never strays far from giving input on what he needs.
The Angels have shown interest in upward of a dozen candidates, and the ones being honest will say the clear answer to their issues is Bauer. Bauer and a second free-agent starter, plus Dylan Bundy, Andrew Heaney and Griffin Canning, would be even better. Except with Trout, Rendon, Albert Pujols and Justin Upton alone, the Angels' payroll is at $120 million, and adding Bauer, another free agent or two and arbitration-eligible players, it easily could push $200 million. And considering how he has gutted the team's baseball operations department, the idea of owner Arte Moreno pushing his payroll to that level is far-fetched.
Guess that means the answer is: Either Moreno stretches beyond where he typically does or, no, they will not finally get Mike Trout some pitching.
What are players doing this winter?
For now, big leaguers are preparing like there will be 162 games, because that's the pragmatic thing to do.
Are they really going to play 162?
Opinions vary widely. Optimists say, yeah, sure, of course. Pessimists fear that if fans aren't allowed back into all 30 stadiums, the financial issues will prompt owners to take the same tack next year that they did this year. And pragmatists recognize that threading the needle here, with a collective-bargaining agreement that expires in October, with players angry from a miserable offseason, with owners ready to lock them out, with so much that could go haywire, is going to require the kind of working relationship that the league and union have proved incapable of fostering.
What could save the season?
It remains to be seen whether 2021 can be salvaged entirely, but a COVID-19 vaccine would go a long way to ensuring that. The league and teams spent tens of millions of dollars on testing in 2020 -- and that was with a schedule of only 37% of a full, regular-season slate.
Mind you, a vaccine is not necessarily a panacea. There are two issues. First, will the supplies be large enough that MLB can secure thousands of doses without disrupting the flow of distribution to those in greater need? Baseball players tend to be healthy 20- to 40-year-old men -- not typically the demographic affected most by the coronavirus. Second, even if MLB can get the doses in an ethical fashion, what percentage of players (and team employees in close contact with them) will agree to receive the vaccine? Is there a certain level that gives baseball enough comfort to move forward, knowing that the sorts of outbreaks that wreaked havoc on Miami's and St. Louis' seasons simply wouldn't happen?
These are difficult questions -- ones of health, of personal welfare, of choice. And even if there is vaccine buy-in and baseball can comfortably operate without fear of an outbreak, that still may not be enough, not with mass-gathering rules in different municipalities neutering the notion of crowds in stadiums.
Maybe, then, instead of 162 games, MLB wants 120. Or 100. Or 80. Or 60.
So we could end up in the same place as last year?
Actually, yeah. It's not likely that the season gets truncated to that degree, but all of baseball, from free agency to the 2021 season, is in a holding pattern without much of an end in sight. For now and the foreseeable future, the pandemic is baseball's lodestar. It's an awful feeling, not knowing when the game is going to be back to what it once was -- but in a way it may never be.
All the jobs lost. All the scouts gone. All the player development coaches without minor league teams to coach. All the minor league players wondering if they'll have games to play. All the anger from the winter, all the uncertainty from the spring, all the specter of another season lost not to COVID-19 but to labor.
The year ahead is fascinating for endless reasons, and it starts here and now, in these weeks where any action that makes this feel like an actual offseason is more than welcome.