The Tenth Inning
 The Tenth Inning Blog
Periodically, I will post new entries about current baseball topics.  The posts will typically be a mixture of commentary, history, facts, and stats.  Hopefully, they will provoke some  of your thoughts or emotions. Clicking on the word "Comments" associated with each post below will open a new dialog box to enter or retrieve any feedback.
Current free-agent market a repeat of last year

Last year at about this same time, I wrote a piece about baseball’s free-agent market still being in a state of flux with a lot of free agent player still unsigned with about a month left until players began reporting to spring training.  I asked the question then, “was the situation an anomaly or was this just the way it was going to be in the future?”  Not only is the game changing on the field, but off the field as well for players and their agents.

Last year wasn’t an anomaly.  There are about 300 free-agent players currently unsigned right now, with roughly 40 days left until major-league players start reporting to Florida and Arizona.

Like the stock market recently performed in December, the free-agent market has hit a low point again this year.  Owners are holding firm on offering contracts with a term more than a year or two.  Many of the unsigned players are the older ones (generally over 32 years old), and teams are unwilling to sign them to longer-term deals.  Teams have found that the younger players and prospects on their rosters, who are already under salary control, are able to fill spots as role players or utility players.

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are the two premier free agents this offseason, a pair of superstars under 27 years old on the open market.  Both are reportedly looking to break the record for largest contract in MLB history, currently held by Giancarlo Stanton, who inked a 13-year, $325 million pact with the Marlins in 2014.  Harper and Machado are still being courted by several teams, and they will eventually get their huge deals.  But most of the remaining unsigned free agents aren’t affected by where they wind up.

The other top free agents haven’t generally had too many problems catching on with new teams.  However, with the exception of a few players (Nathan Eovaldi and Patrick Corbin), they aren’t being offered contracts more than two years.  Players like Josh Donaldson, Michael Brantley, Nelson Cruz, Zach Britton, and J. A. Happ still have gas in the tank and are being given their due monetarily, based on past proven performance and the fact they can fill a critical gap on a major-league roster.

Twenty of the top 50 ranked free agents are still available, including a few stars like Dallas Keuchel, Cody Allen, Craig Kimbrel, A. J. Pollack, Justin Smoak, Asdrubel Cabrera, Nick Markakis, and Marwin Gonzalez.

But then there are serviceable players, although long on the tooth, like Melky Cabrera, Marco Estrada, Evan Gattis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Josh Harrison, Denard Span, Neil Walker, and Jose Bautista, who are still on the market looking for a job.  They will eventually land spots on major-league rosters, but making a lot less money than they’ve been accustomed to earning.

There is another category of players who will accept minor-league contracts so that they at least have an affiliation (although with no guarantees) with a big-league organization, versus playing the waiting game to sign later (possibly even after the season starts), or risk not being able to catch on with an organization at all.

Some baseball analysts have suggested a deadline on off-season free agency signing, such as January 1.  Of course, the players would favor this, but there doesn’t seem to be an imperative for major-league organizations to go along with this.

Front offices are now filled with people who are primarily businessmen, not ex-players or others long-associated with the game, as in years past.  They aren’t tied down by the history of players continuing to draw big salaries with long-term contracts when they are well past their prime playing years.  It’s clearly a young players’ game now.  The use of advanced analytics by the new-style front offices is helping identify the players with declining skills and those who have become “one-trick ponies.”  Versatile players that are able to fill several positions on the field are valued by GMs and managers when constructing rosters and lineups.

It may take some time, but the player market will eventually shake out.  There will likely be more losers than winners on the contractual front, but that seems to be the trend for the foreseeable future.

 

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