The past two offseasons have not presented the greatest look for Major League Baseball and where it is heading. The narrative that has seen great prominence during that time is a story of cheap owners, player’s not getting their fair-market pay, and long, stalled out hot stove seasons.
The middle-tier free agents have perhaps struggled the most.
For middle-tier free agents in 2015-16, teams were paying on average (adjusted for revenue) $7.1 million for one win from each middle-tier free agent—back when Mike Leake and Wei-Yen Chen were signing $80 million deals. The next two offseasons saw the figure drop, hovering around $4.5 million. This offseason (with Marwin Gonzalez still unsigned) it’s currently at $3.7 million, nearly a 50% decrease from three years ago. They’ve by far have had it the worst.
One ancillary effect is that fan interest in free agency has waned both due to the time it takes for players to sign, and because so few teams seem linked to some of the best available talent. Last season two of the top free agents the game has ever seen were available, but few teams were rumored to be showing interst in getting a deal done with either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. Overall, there’s been a lack of urgency to win around the league, creating an undesirable product for the fans, and this trickles into the offseason which has become slow-moving and boring instead of being filled with anticipation and excitement.
With another decent group of free agents available, there is hope that this offseason will be better. Maybe Gerrit Cole will sign before February. Maybe Anthony Rendon will have more than a couple suitors. Maybe there won’s be free agents waiting until after the MLB Draft to sign. This hope is mostly wishful thinking. But unfortunately, there are some early warning signs.
Before I get into the anecdotes, I want to present a friendly reminder that if a team spends more money, they’ll generally win more games and draw more attendance. I know! Crazy concept. This is backed up by research from Dan Lependorf at The Hardball Times.
As much as the postseason woes have looked bad, it remains true that the Dodgers are one of the better-operated and well-positioned franchises in the game. They won 106 games this season and had the second-best run differential in baseball. They aren’t losing a significant amount of talent this offseason. Their payroll is set to decrease by over $35 million next year and by roughly another $75 million the following season. They play in one of baseball’s biggest markets.
They’re in a position to spend. They should be in contention for most of the top free agents. But…
The Dodgers could use Cole, and they could afford him. But they consider their business plan successful, and it has not included guaranteeing eight years — let alone $250-ish million — to a pitcher who would be 37 when the contract expires.
— Bill Shaikin (@BillShaikin) November 5, 2019
Much was made about the Red Sox firing of top executive Dave Dombrowski months after he helped bring the team a World Series title. There was a difference in the future vision in the organization. Dombrowski wanted to keep winning. Ownership wanted to save money.
The Red Sox, another well-positioned team retaining most of their talent while playing in a large market, are now evaluating their options. One of those options is tearing it down, which would likely be the result of a failed effort to extend their superstar outfielder Mookie Betts.
Kennedy said that “there is a way” that both Betts and Martinez could return, but acknowledged it will be difficult.
”Yes, there is a way but obviously it will be difficult given the nature of the agreements and the contracts that we have in place,” Kennedy said. ”Look, we have a very targeted and strategic plan that we’re building right now.”
With these quotes, you can almost come to conclusion that the Red Sox won’t be very active in the free agent market.
The third team here that had a good enough 2019 season that would not suggest a back-track, they play in a big market, and look to be in contention next season. The argument for the Cubs to spend is perhaps stronger than the one for the Dodgers and Red Sox. The Cubs need a greater need to improve their roster. If they send some money this offseason they would in a very fine situation heading into 2020… (womp womp)
“It’s not about how much you spend, it’s how much you win,” Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said last week on WSCR 670-AM. “The correlation between spending and winning is not nearly as strong as we’d like it to be.”
Sahadev Sharma at The Athletic also writes that team is unlikely to be spending a whole lot this offseason.
Some of baseball’s best teams seem to already have an overall disinterest in improving their rosters via the free agent market this offseason. This once again doesn’t bode quite to well for the free agents and for the offseason. Maybe things could change outside of these few teams, but the early indicators don’t look great.