If there is a silver lining in gridlock, in the slow, bumper-to-bumper traffic snarling Major League Baseball’s free-agent market, it is this: If you haven’t been paying attention, you haven’t missed much.
Fifty-seven days after players officially became free agents, and four days after Christmas offered a momentary break, the offseason is still moving at a historically slow pace. The winter’s top free agents are still waiting to find homes. The game’s moneyed franchises are still resisting the annual splurge. The numbers reveal a system on hold.
On Friday, former Royals closer Wade Davis agreed to a three-year, $52 million contract with the Colorado Rockies, a deal that constituted a breakthrough in this climate and pushed the total money spent on free agents past $500 million. Across the last three offseasons, aggregate spending had exceeded $1 billion by the final weeks of December. On Friday, the largest contract of the offseason still belonged to first baseman Carlos Santana, who signed a three-year, $60 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies. By this time last year, teams had doled out eight deals worth at least $60 million.
As a result, the Royals’ former triumvirate of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain remains on the open market, their futures more murky than they were a month ago. What once seemed like a sure thing — Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain signing long-term deals worth generational wealth — now seems more tenuous and uncertain by the day.
Industry observers offer a list of theories to explain the light spending. Maybe it’s a young generation of analytical general managers who believe more strongly in the flaws of free agency; maybe it’s the cyclical nature of a number of big-market clubs — the Dodgers, Nationals, Yankees and Cubs, to name four — having few holes and little motivation to spend big. Maybe it’s the desire of those same teams — the Dodgers and Yankees, in particular — to stay under the game’s competitive-balance tax threshold and reset the punitive taxes they pay in advance of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado becoming free agents next year. (The Yankees, of course, already took on nearly $300 million by trading for Giancarlo Stanton.) And maybe it’s agent Scott Boras, too, who has five of the biggest free agents in the market, including Hosmer, Moustakas, Greg Holland, Jake Arrieta and J.D. Martinez, and appears to be in an industry-wide stare down with teams.
Whatever the case — and, after all, it’s likely a combination of factors — the shape of the offseason could turn the month of January into a frenzy as free agents attempt to find landing spots before the season. Whatever the case, the Royals could find themselves weighing some unexpected scenarios as they transition to a rebuilding phase and seek to restock their farm system.
From the beginning of the offseason, the Royals have been publicly consistent in their desire to pursue Hosmer, a 28-year-old first baseman coming off the best season of his career. They appeared less bullish about exploring possible deals for Moustakas or Cain. The philosophy stemmed from the idea that while a six- or seven-year deal for Hosmer could fit into a new rebuilding plan, long-term deals for Cain or Moustakas made less sense. Cain will be 32 years old in April. Moustakas comes with more durability concerns than Hosmer as he ages into his early 30s. The Royals also have Cheslor Cuthbert ready to step in at third base. The next window to contend may not open for three to four years.
This calculus, of course, was made based on the assumption that Moustakas would command offers that made little fiscal sense. Yet to this point, the markets for Hosmer and Moustakas have appeared nebulous, while Cain appears stuck amongst a middle-class of free agents who are waiting for the market to start churning.
The climate could be helpful if the club seeks to retain Hosmer or another piece of its former core. Yet it’s also adding some risk. Because the Royals offered qualifying offers to Hosmer, Moustakas and Cain, the team is in line for three compensatory picks if those players sign elsewhere. The quality of those selections, however, will depend on how much the players sign for. If the player signs for more than $50 million, the compensation pick will come after the first round. If the deal is for less than $50 million, the pick will be after Competive Balance Round B, which comes after the second round.
For now, the wait continues. Hosmer appeared to be a solid fit for the Red Sox, a rare big-market team in position to add. Yet Boston signed free agent first baseman Mitch Moreland and remains in the hunt for Martinez, the top offensive performer on the market. Moustakas, meanwhile, appeared to be a decent fit for the Los Angeles Angels or San Francisco Giants. But the Angels moved quickly to sign former Reds shortstop Zack Cozart to play third base, while the Giants traded for Tampa Bay’s Evan Longoria.
Hosmer still appears to have interest from the San Diego Padres, though recent reports that the club was prepared to offer a six-year, $120 million contract were based on incorrect interpretations of earlier reports from ESPN’s Buster Olney. For now, the market has been so slow that even idle chatter from the winter meetings can be dissected and ground to a nub.
In some ways, of course, the slow nature of the offseason could buoy the Royals’ hopes to re-sign Hosmer. Two years ago, the club waited out free agent Alex Gordon and came to terms with him in early January. Yet the current offseason offers some uncertainty.
On Friday, the gridlock loosened for just a moment as Davis officially signed with the Rockies. Was the deal an exception or an omen?