If the state of baseball’s talent marketplace at this early stage of the offseason sounds a lot like last year’s, it is not just your imagination. Many of the same forces that made last winter’s market so frustrating and polarizing — including top free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado waiting until late February to sign and pitchers Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel staying sidelined until June — are back a year later.
And if anything, things are even worse this winter — even with the markets only now beginning to take shape as Major League Baseball’s annual general managers’ meetings convene this week in Scottsdale, Ariz.
That was evident in the statement last week from Major League Baseball Players Association boss Tony Clark, who interpreted some ill-chosen comments made on a conference call by Atlanta Braves General Manager Alex Anthopoulos about free agency as being tantamount to collusion.
Anthopoulos, speaking of his preliminary conversations with other GMs regarding offseason checklists, said, “We had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency [and] who might be available in trades.”
Anthopoulos later clarified his comments in a statement, saying, “At no time during any of these calls was there discussion of individual free agents or the Braves’ intentions with respect to the free agent market. To the extent I indicated otherwise … I misspoke and apologize for any confusion.”
Clark pounced on Anthopoulos’s original comments as clear evidence of “coordination” — union code for collusion — among teams regarding free agency. The comments, Clark said, “call into question the integrity of the entire free agent system. The clear description of club coordination is egregious, and we have launched an immediate investigation looking into the matter.”
Even without this latest escalation, the passage of a year’s time means we are that much closer to labor Armageddon, with baseball’s current labor agreement set to expire after the 2021 season and little reason for hope of avoiding a work stoppage when that time comes. Clark’s statement only served to underscore how strained relations are between the union and management and how perilous the sport’s current, 24-year run of labor peace truly is.
It is within this strained atmosphere that baseball’s offseason talent marketplace will play out. Business will go on, with 30 teams still hoping to address various needs and dozens of players still in need of new homes by Opening Day. But the labor unrest will never be far from the surface.
Here, then, is a look at where things stand on the three major tracks of this offseason, all of which will intersect at various points along the way:
• Free agency. The headlines again will go to the superstars at the top of the food chain — right-handers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg and third baseman Anthony Rendon — who are about to cash in. Prepare to hear a lot of hackneyed metaphors over the next few months from loquacious agent Scott Boras, who represents all three.
Cole almost certainly will blow away David Price’s $217 million deal, the largest ever for a pitcher. Rendon, if he is willing to accept a five-year deal, could threaten Mike Trout’s record average annual value of $35.5 million. And Strasburg, who exercised an opt out in his Washington Nationals contract, could re-sign with the Nationals at a higher rate and longer terms or see what else the open market might offer.
With Boras controlling the top end of the market — in addition to Cole, Rendon and Strasburg, he also represents top targets Hyun-Jin Ryu, Mike Moustakas, Nicholas Castellanos and Keuchel — MLB officials are bracing for another slow-moving free agent market, similar to last winter’s.
Having largely sat out the high-end free agent markets of the past couple of winters, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers could dive back in, with the former among the teams expected to make a play for Cole and the latter a natural fit for Rendon.
But there will be other teams to watch this winter, including the Los Angeles Angels, who will be motivated to spend after hiring Joe Maddon as manager and who have the geographical advantage of being Cole’s hometown team — as well as the Texas Rangers, who move into a new stadium in 2020 and are expected to target Rendon, a native Texan.
Starting pitching will drive this market, with Cole and Strasburg joined by the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Zack Wheeler, Ryu and Keuchel.
• Trades. New Boston Red Sox General Manager Chaim Bloom should be the first call for any rival GM looking to make a blockbuster deal; the team’s bloated payroll and stated desire to get below the $208 million luxury-tax threshold in 2020 has it positioned to deal away one or more expensive star players this winter.
That could include — in rough order of most to least likely to be moved — such names as center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., right fielder Mookie Betts, right-hander Nathan Eovaldi, designated hitter J.D. Martinez, Price and/or shortstop Xander Bogaerts.
The trade market also could heat up quickly, as it has in recent winters, if the rumors prove true that the Chicago Cubs — apparently intent on altering the team’s culture — intend to shop such cornerstones as third baseman Kris Bryant and/or catcher Willson Contreras or if the Cleveland Indians begin entertaining offers for shortstop Francisco Lindor and onetime ace Corey Kluber.
If you really want to think big, how about an MVP-for-MVP swap of Betts for Bryant? It actually makes some sense: The Cubs would get the walk year of Betts, at an estimated cost of $30 million, and a head start on trying to lock him up on a long-term deal, while the Red Sox, looking to trim payroll, would get two years of control of Bryant at a significantly lower cost.
• Labor. While the practical ramifications of Clark’s charged statement are important — the union’s investigation, if it finds anything actionable, could lead to a grievance alleging collusion — what it says about the state of labor relations is even more so. Many within the industry believe the atmosphere is at its worst since the 1994-95 strike.
There is no evidence of substantive dialogue between labor and management over the major issues, at least since the union rejected an MLB proposal for setting a mid-December deadline for free agent signings to speed up the process — which the union feared would further restrict the market.
The leaguewide move away from older, midrange free agents is bound to continue as long as teams continue to value efficiency above all else — which means finding similar production out of cheaper, younger, more controllable talent. This, above all, is what inflames union leadership, but a fix would probably require a complete rethinking of baseball’s salary structure — a notion that seems impossible in the present atmosphere.
Commissioner Rob Manfred, meanwhile, remains committed to on-field improvements to the product, particularly in pace-of-game issues — after the average time of a nine-inning game rose by five minutes in 2019 to 3:05. But that, too, seems almost impossible, at least by way of negotiations with the union, given those strained relations.
Within the darkness are slivers of hope — an early sense within the industry that this market may move more quickly than the past few, as well as the still-fresh examples of the 2019 Nationals, who won the World Series with the oldest roster in the game, and the Houston Astros, who lost the World Series with the second oldest. Baseball is, after all, a copycat sport.
But absent any evidence of widespread improvement, it is perhaps best to remain pessimistic — figuring things will get worse before they get better — and be pleasantly surprised if you were wrong.