At the beginning of this offseason, we ranked the 10 best MLB free agents of the offseason. Nearly six weeks later, with the Winter Meetings over, eight of those 10 players (all but Shohei Ohtani and, as of just before this post was published, Zack Cozart) remain unsigned. In case you don’t trust us, nine of the top 10 and 12 of the 15 top free agents on MLB Trade Rumors remain unsigned as well.
The Winter Meetings, usually a flurry of activity, were particularly dull on the free agency front. The biggest signing of the event was… Brandon Morrow to the Cubs? Pat Neshek and/or Tommy Hunter to the Phillies? Brandon Kintzler back to the Nationals? Bryan Shaw and/or Jake McGee to the Rockies? The week was slow as the hour hand on the last day or school.
So what’s really going on here? For weeks, the common narrative held that the offseason was being held up by the slow-unfolding sagas of Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton. But Ohtani chose the Angels, Stanton wound up with the Yankees and the free agency pace still didn’t pick up. Nor did the pace speed as teams ironed out their managerial roles and coaching staffs.
The most logical explanation for the slow offseason comes from the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, who posits that front offices these days share similar values, making for a narrow range of offers to given free agents. Additionally, all front offices are smart enough to recognize the danger of long-term contracts to flawed players. Writes Sherman, one of the most plugged-in reporters in the game:
Many reasons coalesced to create the least active meetings perhaps ever — the methodical Boras having five of the biggest players in the market, for example. But nothing has frozen the market more than the groupthink that now pervades the industry by a bunch of bright folks who so similarly value players and how to spend money and on what.
Yahoo’s Jeff Passan made a similar point late last month, essentially suggesting that teams are too smart to make the type of outlier offer that a free agent would jump at quickly.
How does it work? Consider the case of Tommy Hunter, the relief pitcher, who late last winter was holding out for a major league contract. On the same day, according to two sources, at least two teams called Hunter offering the exact same deal – an occurrence that in the past might have screamed of collusion. In this case, the sources said, it was likelier a reflection of how teams value players so similarly.
Though this phenomenon should affect every offseason, we can assume it is especially powerful this year thanks to a weak free-agent class whose best players all come with serious flaws. J.D. Martinez can’t play defense, Eric Hosmer has had only one elite season, Yu Darvish hasn’t been quite the same since Tommy John surgery, Jake Arrieta has been shaky the past two years. A decade ago, maybe a homer-hungry GM would have looked past Martinez’s weaknesses, offered him a massive deal and hoped for the best, even if it meant blowing past the luxury tax threshold. Now, sophisticated projection systems warn teams to beware of a player who’ll give back his offensive value with his glove, and brainy executives understand the risk-reward of the luxury tax.
Of course, the market won’t stay quiet forever. At some point, either agents will lower their prices or desperate teams will raise their offers and Martinez, Hosmer, Darvish, Arrieta, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and all the rest will find new teams. Gone is the blizzard of moves at the Winter Meetings that used to define offseasons. Here is a slow drizzle of signings throughout January and February that will define this one.