As spring training approaches, a large number of free agents – including many of the top names – are yet to sign a contract. In fact, there’s talk about the players union setting up separate spring training camps to accommodate free agent players.
There’s little doubt that a number of these players would benefit any team. That’s what makes it so strange that so many are left on the market.
While there’s a growing thought that MLB teams may be working together to avoid signing free agents to massive, long-term contracts, it’s also possible a handful of factors have created a perfect storm.
Let’s assume the owners aren’t colluding against the players. (I’m not sure that’s not happening, but I’ll stick to what can be proven.)
Something that is happening is the widening of the divide between competitive teams and non-competitive teams. Recently, the Astros and Cubs have proven the value of full rebuilding projects. Both teams tore down their major league rosters and rebuilt through solid drafting and savvy front office moves. Both went on to win the World Series.
That’s an attractive model for a lot of small- and medium-market clubs. To start 2017, it’s fair to say that about one-third of MLB teams are in the midst of a rebuilding process.
There are at least six more teams that could be on the verge of starting such a process. If the season doesn’t start well, they’ll almost certainly become sellers at the trade deadline and begin rebuilding.
That removes about half the league from the free agent bidding process. If a team is rebuilding or on the cusp of doing so, it isn’t going to give a guy like Eric Hosmer a nine-figure contract. These are teams that should be considered between non-competitive and semi-competitive.
This means that only about half the league should be considered competitive. Of these teams, a handful are set with their current roster and/or unwilling to pay the luxury tax that kicks in once a team’s payroll crosses $197 million.
It leaves about 10 teams as the only suitors for major free agents, and until the big-time free agents find a home, it makes it difficult for lesser players to know where they fit.
This situation has given these 10 teams – the Cardinals, Cubs, Brewers, Nationals, Diamondbacks, Mariners, Twins, Giants, Angels and Red Sox – a leg up in negotiations. This is especially true when considering each team has specific needs, which narrows the market even more. For instance, the Red Sox probably only have interest in J.D. Martinez. They aren’t likely to be competing with pitching-needy teams like the Brewers and Twins.
Basically, no team is in a situation that demands it overpay or, in some cases, meet market value for the player(s) it wants.
The players are going to play, which gives the teams the upper hand. It will lead to a lot of spring training signings, which could be a boon for a few lucky teams, including the Cardinals.