Imagine you are a corner outfielder/first baseman/professional hitter type with six years of major league service time. You have arrived at free agency – a landmark career achievement for any baseball player – at the worst time imaginable, with your future earnings compromised by both an industry trend toward younger, cheaper players and, more recently, a global pandemic.
Among the unknowns facing the sport: When will the 2021 season start? Will there be fans in attendance? Will there be a designated hitter in the National League? The answer to that last question alone could decide whether there are 15 teams who might be willing to employ you, or 30.
As if that weren’t bad enough, this week another dozen or so hitters with similar skill sets – among them former all-stars and World Series heroes – were added to the glut of supply when their teams failed to offer them 2021 contracts. Whatever visions you once had of a massive contract coming your way this winter, your agent is probably telling you to think smaller. Much smaller.
That is a snapshot of the talent marketplace for just one segment of players as baseball enters the week normally occupied by its annual Winter Meetings. Some years, the confluence of team executives, agents and members of the media at a single convention-center hotel can jump-start a sluggish market – as it did a year ago, when Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon signed free-agent contracts worth north of three-quarters of a billion dollars on consecutive days.
But this year’s in-person event was canceled in late October, another victim of the coronavirus pandemic. Whatever business there is to tackle will take place virtually, though there will not be any sort of official Virtual Winter Meetings. Having essentially operated remotely since March, it won’t be difficult for front offices and agents to continue doing so.
More concerning than the absence of face-to-face interactions is the underlying trajectory of the offseason talent marketplace and the economic forces shaping it. Commissioner Rob Manfred has said the league suffered $3 billion in operational losses as a result of a 2020 season shortened to 60 games and played without fans. Los Angeles Dodgers President Stan Kasten, in an interview on CNBC, pegged his team’s losses at “well north” of $100 million – and that’s the World Series champions.
Whether you buy those numbers – and there is plenty of skepticism, beginning with the MLB Players Association – it is clear teams are determined to pass along whatever hit they took in short-term cash-flow in 2020 on to the players.
“It’s no secret. A large, live-entertainment business is getting crushed through this (pandemic),” said Baltimore Orioles General Manager Mike Elias, whose team has already parted ways with its 2020 leaders in home runs (first baseman/DH Renato Núñez), hits (utility man Hanser Alberto) and OPS (shortstop José Iglesias). “It’s in the back of your mind right now when you’re going to go out and look at the free-agent market. And every team is going to be like that. There’s a lot of uncertainty.”
The increasing stratification of the talent pool – which last winter resulted in Strasburg, Cole and Rendon signing deals worth a combined $814 million, while less-heralded players mostly settled for smaller and shorter deals – means a handful of elite free agents in this winter’s market is still likely to land nine-figure contracts. That group includes pitcher Trevor Bauer, catcher J.T. Realmuto and center fielder George Springer.
The laws of supply and demand (namely, the sheer number of contending teams in need of rotation help) mean proven starting pitchers could also do well this winter – which these days means a multiyear deal. In addition to Bauer, that group includes Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Odorizzi and Taijuan Walker, as well as Japanese star Tomoyuki Sugano, who is expected to be posted by the Yomiuri Giants this winter.
But for everybody else, the signs are ominous. Already, many players have been forced to adapt to the changing landscape – from pitchers Marcus Stoman (Mets) and Kevin Gausman (Giants) accepting one-year qualifying offers from their teams rather than diving into free agency, to free-agent pitchers Charlie Morton and Drew Smyly signing one-year deals early in the winter, to the nearly 60 arbitration-eligible players who agreed to terms, often at cut-rate prices, ahead of the “nontender” deadline.
But that still didn’t stop the avalanche that arrived Wednesday, when the ranks of available free agents swelled by 59 names – players whose teams cut them loose rather than tendering a 2020 contract. While that number is up only slightly over a year ago (56), it is more than double the number of players (26) who were nontendered in 2017.
The market, in other words, is going in the wrong direction. Rather than a cascade of free agents coming off the board, more names are being added, with Wednesday’s nontender additions pushing the list of available major league free agents to more than 230.
Among Wednesday’s victims were some big names, including former all-stars Adam Duvall and David Dahl; 2016 World Series hero Kyle Schwarber; and Eddie Rosario, who has received MVP votes in each of the past two seasons. All are corner-outfield, hired-bat types, adding to the glut of inventory in that category – a situation made worse by the lack of clarity in 2021 over the universal DH, which must be negotiated with the union.
For different reasons, both the teams and the union prefer the universal DH – which was used in both the American League and National League for the first time in 2020 – but MLB has tied its implementation in 2021 to the union’s agreeing to an expanded, 14-team playoff field, and there has been little to no movement in those talks. For now, most NL teams are operating as if there won’t be a DH in 2021 – bad news for free agents such as Marcell Ozuna, Nelson Cruz and others.
“It’s not a great situation to be in,” new Miami Marlins GM Kim Ng said on a Zoom session with reporters. “We’d like to have some clarity on the (DH) matter, but at this time we just don’t.”
If there were ever an offseason when baseball needed a Winter Meetings – if not to put people face-to-face for the purpose of making deals (which can be done, more or less, remotely), then at least to commiserate over cocktails in the lobby bar – it is this one. And so, baseball’s coldest, loneliest winter drags on.
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