As I write this things on the free agent market are starting to move a little bit, at least relative to what we had been seeing for most of the free agency period this winter. Things have been getting progressively slower the past few years, and the financial uncertainty caused by the pandemic has only worked to speed up that slowing down. It also doesn’t help that there are no clear guidelines on what some rules, such as roster size and DH in the National League, will end up being.
And so I used this slow-paced offseason to influence the staff roundtable question for the week. For as slow as things are moving, teams are still preparing to have spring training kick off in just about a month. With so many players left out there, it seems inevitable that some big names will still be there when camps are going in full swing. I was interested in getting a feel for how much people thought things would speed up, if at all, over the next month. So the question was: How many players from MLB Trade Rumor’s Top 25 free agents will still be without a team once camps get going in full-swing? I allowed for the possibility of spring training starting later than expected as well if that was what someone thought could happen.
I think about five of those top 25 free agents will still be unsigned at the start of full team workouts for spring training. It seems as if spring training will likely be delayed, which would give even more leeway for these free agents to find homes. After originally worrying about COVID-19 depressing the market, I became less so after seeing the contracts dished out to James McCann, Liam Hendriks, and Mike Minor. I’m hopeful this trend will continue. However, whenever we get a Trevor Bauer or George Springer signing is when I believe things will really start to get rolling. Once some of the bigger names are gone, teams will realize their financial position and begin pursuing those 2nd tier guys. All of these factors should lead to at least 20 of those top 25 guys on teams prior to spring training.
Of the top 25 free agents per MLBTR, I believe that somewhere between five and 10 will be still unsigned once full team workouts start. This may seem like a really high number, especially in relation to previous years, but it feels like in this offseason more than ever that nobody really knows what a players value is. Usually a big name signs, and then the rest of the dominoes start to fall. But I don’t get the feeling that will be true this time around. Trevor Bauer wants an Gerrit Cole-level deal, J.T. Realmuto’s market is not as robust as I think he’d hoped, George Springer is sounding like he’s a good 25 million dollars short of the deal he wants to this point, and DJ LeMahieu has gotten so mad with the Yankees that he’s finally re-engaging with other clubs. (Editor’s Note: This was written earlier in the week and it seems LeMahieu and New York are agreeing to a contract right around publishing time.)
It doesn’t feel like any of these players is in any rush to sign, and I wouldn’t actually be shocked if these four in particular were still unsigned by this time next month. The Padres, Mets, and White Sox can’t sign everybody, and many of the big money teams like the Yankees and Red Sox just don’t seem interested in spending at this point in time. It’s a bad mix for these players, and I feel all of them will fall well short of their contractual demands to this point. If any player gets their reported demands, I feel like it will be Springer, because his demands seem the most reasonable of the list, but I still feel he will fall short. And when players fall short of their demands, you see this waiting game commence.
We’ve seen it before with J.D. Martinez. We should be intimately familiar with the waiting game. Based on early returns, it looks like a lot of other organizations will be in the same boat in late February.
If it wasn’t for a few big time trades, this offseason would have been the slowest I can remember. I cannot fully blame teams as they do not have official word on when the season will start or what the rules will be. That being said, I have a feeling that spring training will begin on time but most of the top free agents will still be without a home. Once players start to report to camp, we should (hopefully) see some movement on free agent signings.
I don’t expect there to be a mad rush of free agent signings in the next few weeks. I also don’t really expect a seamless beginning of spring training or the season, but that’s another conversation. Even if there isn’t a big push before spring training, I think a bit more than half of the top 25 remaining free agents will still be without a new deal by the time full team workouts start. If we want to put a specific number on it, my guess is 12 of the top 25 remaining free agents will be left when teams report.
Teams were slow to open up the purse strings in previous offseasons, but with the COVID-19 pandemic still looming over this one, I expect even more conservative negotiating. They’ll have more clarity once spring training starts, so while some players will certainly still find homes, especially some on the lower tier in terms of expected salary, I think a large group of guys won’t get signed until teams are more comfortable with where the season is going.
We’re starting to see the end of “hot stove” season and the start of “who’s going to be in camp,” and the free agent market is still progressing at a glacial pace. Lack of transparency from MLB about universal DH, commitments to spring training and a 162-game season, and COVID outbreaks in then NFL and NBA aren’t making this season look like a smooth endeavor from the start. Of the MLBTradeRumors top 25 free agents names like Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, and Marcell Ozuna have been the subject of rumors since November began, but none are signed. This isn’t Prince Fielder holding out for a Scott Boras magic trick; this is the top of the class! Only five of the top twenty-five have signed as of January 14th. Five!
Unless the salary expectations crater — unlikely -- I’m going to say 12 of these players will still be on the market once camps begin. Who might get signed? Masahiro Tanaka and Jake Odorizzi. J.T. Realmuto will end up somewhere because at some point cashing in for the best catcher available will be convincing to a team as it’s an upgrade for basically everyone. The rest might have to start that unsigned workout camp from a few years ago back up. One bonus: number 26 on the MLBTR list, Brad Hand, will also find a job. He’ll get two more years and probably $30 million more dollars than a few months ago when any team could have had him to 1 year/$10 million.
I’m going to go with five. Feels like the last couple of winters things ramped up in February so I’m hoping that’s the same thing this year, though I expect a feel hold overs from guys trying to maximize their value. It would not shock me if Bauer hasn’t signed by the time we get to full squads, for example. Based on recent reports about the Red Sox hoping to make some major changes to the roster I’m also hoping February is a busy month for the hometown team but I’m not holding my breath.
I’ve given up on following news about the happenings between the league and the Player’s Association. I totally whiffed on how the last set of negotiations would play out so I’ve opted to sit it out and hear what my lawyer friends who nailed it last time think. They don’t think spring training starts on time and gets delayed until around late April with opening day around Memorial Day. Déjà vu! So, are we talking about the end of April or the beginning of February?
I don’t talk with anybody, so I’m throwing darts here, but I can see anywhere from six to fifteen more guys going off the board, but I’m learning toward the former. I think some of the top guys like Bauer and Realmuto are going to have trouble either getting offers or getting teams to come up to their price while some of the older dudes on the back end of the top 25 will run into the same problem. Either way, it’s not good for the sport.
I think 20 or so of the top 25 free agents should have teams soon enough. The twin forces of COVID and naturally later breaking agreements should delay everything pretty handily, but the market seems pretty well set and it seems like players are just sifting through the offers. I expect the dominoes to fall pretty quickly once the first few are toppled, as I’m sure the players are itching to get squared away as soon as possible, so now... we wait.
I’m going to be on the low end here as well, thinking that maybe five or so guys will still be looking for a team in mid-February and they’ll all have a home by the first week of March or so, perhaps with one straggler. The market is certainly not robust for players, but it seems to be better than I expected, and with the urgency of a looming spring training that should be enough to push most of these deals over the finish line. That could, of course, be wishful thinking on my part, but when has that ever hurt anyone?