How Long Can the Remaining Free Agents Wait Before Things Get Weird?

Stephen Brashear-USA TODAY Sports

It feels like March comes earlier every year. Certainly Jordan Montgomery and Blake Snell must feel that way, seeing as how they’re sitting around unemployed while college basketball tournaments are already underway. All of a sudden, starting rotation spots are harder to come by than tenure-track professorships in the humanities. And they’re not the only ones. Michael Lorenzen is also sitting around getting way too good at playing along with The Price is Right. He might not have been at the head of the free agent class, but by God he was an All-Star and threw a no-hitter just last year!

All of these guys will find work somewhere, somehow, and at some vast salary figure. Probably not nine years and $270 million, but it’ll be a lot of money.

This free agent saga has gone on for so long that there really isn’t much more to say about players who had been picked apart and analyzed exhaustively by the Winter Meetings last December, and have remained on the vine for another three months since. Except this: Are they at risk of becoming overripe?

This year, most major league players were due in camp on or around Valentine’s Day. Grapefruit and Cactus League play started about two weeks later, with the regular season another four weeks after that. (Except for the Dodgers and Padres, who’ll get underway in Korea a week earlier.) Call it six weeks of training camp to get from offseason hibernation to game shape.

Now, Montgomery, Snell, and Lorenzen will all be working out on their own in the meantime. (Certainly Lorenzen, who has never skipped arm day in his life.) All three have access to top-end private training centers and coaching that can prepare them to jump into spring training midstream. But in terms of familiarizing themselves with new teammates, new facilities, new coaches — to say nothing of the preparation that can only be done against live opposition — it’s fair to wonder if missing at least half of the preseason will have a deleterious effect on these players.

It got me thinking about the 2018 preseason, when Lance Lynn found himself in a similar situation. (Admittedly, I’m usually thinking about Lance Lynn.) He got frozen out of the free agent market and took a one-year deal with the Twins in mid-March. Lynn made his first start 21 days after putting pen to paper and had a horrible first half, and his worst full season for four years in either direction.

I asked Lynn about that spring a couple of years ago, and he said his forgettable run in Minnesota was the result of other factors than the truncated ramp-up. Besides, we’ve had two of the past five preseasons reduced by a pandemic and a lockout; that proves it’s possible to get ready for a season in less than six weeks.

Moreover, free agent pitchers sign this late all the time. Between minor league roster churn and late injury replacements, it’s not unusual for teams to keep bringing in new arms after the season starts.

But that’s not the position Montgomery, Snell, and Lorenzen are in. These are established big league starters — good ones — who sought multi-year contracts worth eight figures a year. The players who arrive at camp this late are usually marginal, not stars. How common is it for a pitcher like these three to be in this position? And is it common enough that we can draw conclusions from that precedent?

Since the 2020-21 offseason, the RosterResource archives have 123 instances of starting pitchers signing major league free agent contracts. Only 17 of those signings came after March 1, and of those 17, 11 came in March of 2022. That’s the post-lockout signing spree, which isn’t useful for the purposes of comparison because nobody was in spring training at that point. Of the other six, three were instances of a player starting camp with one team, getting released, then signing with another. Then there was Cole Hamels’ last-gasp comeback attempt with the Dodgers in August 2021.

So the most recent starting pitchers to sign this late without some kind of mitigating circumstance were Trevor Cahill and Jake Odorizzi in 2021. The 2019-20 offseason saw numerous pitcher signings, but thanks to COVID, everyone was forced into a truncated spring training ramp-up. You have to go back into the Dark Ages, the capital strike days of the late 2010s, to find a time when this sort of thing was common. And even then, what we’re seeing now has only really happened once in the past decade.

From 2014 to 2023, there were nine free agent starting pitchers (including Cahill, who did it twice) who met the following conditions: They signed major league contracts after March 1, having not been in a different team’s training camp before, and without experiencing either a COVID- or lockout-related timing crunch. That’s a lot of qualifiers, but it’s necessary in order to cut out all the chaff. Here’s the list:

Late-Signing Starters, 2014-23
Player Team Age Date Year Debut GS IP ERA WAR
Trevor Cahill PIT 33 March 11 2021 April 6 8 37 6.57 0.5
Jake Odorizzi HOU 31 March 6 2021 April 13 23 104 2/3 4.21 1.1
Clay Buchholz TOR 34 March 5 2019 April 13 12 59 6.56 0.1
Alex Cobb BAL 30 March 21 2018 April 14 28 152 1/3 4.90 1.5
Trevor Cahill OAK 30 March 19 2018 April 17 20 110 3.76 2.0
Jake Arrieta PHI 32 March 12 2018 April 8 31 172 2/3 3.96 2.0
Lance Lynn MIN 31 March 12 2018 April 2 29 156 2/3 4.77 2.8
Chris Young KCR 36 March 7 2015 April 12 18 123 1/2 3.06 1.0
Joe Saunders TEX 33 March 5 2014 April 4* 8 43 6.70 -0.7
Ervin Santana ATL 31 March 12 2014 April 9 31 196 3.95 3.2
*Didn’t pitch again until May 28

Some pitchers made a habit of signing this late. In addition to Cahill, both Buchholz and Young have signed minor league contracts with non-roster invites in March. But for the most part, this isn’t the ideal scenario.

Nevertheless, the cases must be winnowed a little further before a useful set of case studies emerges. Buchholz and Saunders were washed by this point in their careers. So was Cahill in 2021. Montgomery and Snell are 31; Lorenzen is 32. I’d be astonished if any of them were that level of cooked by 2024, though it wouldn’t shock me if Lorenzen signed the last multi-year contract of his career, as Odorizzi and Arrieta did.

But if you take out the guys who were awful — and probably would’ve been so no matter when they signed — every other pitcher on the list was working in the majors by April 17 and threw at least 100 innings overall. All of them except for Young made at least 20 starts. And that’s not due to any failing on Young’s part; in addition to his 18 starts, he made 16 relief appearances in the regular season, and at no point did he have an ERA over 4.00. Young went on to start two playoff games and win Game 1 of the World Series: a successful campaign by any standard.

The closest thing to Snell in this group is probably Santana, who got tagged with a qualifying offer after a successful 2013 campaign with the Royals. He signed a one-year contract with the Braves on March 12, hit the ground running, threw almost 200 excellent innings, and parlayed that into a four-year, $54 million contract with Minnesota the following winter.

Arrieta also had no ill effects from the late spring training start; the Phillies didn’t run up his pitch count early in the season, but after his first 10 starts, he had a 2.16 ERA. The 2018 version of Cahill seemed fine as well. It took him until April 17 to make his first start, but in it he threw 92 pitches over seven scoreless innings. He had to miss a start in May with an elbow impingement and five weeks later in the spring with an Achilles injury. But at the time of the latter injury, he was averaging six innings a start and had an ERA of 2.77.

So out of this final group of seven pitchers, four came out of the gate unaffected. The others… less so:

Woof
Pitcher Year Starts IP BB SO ERA Regular Service Resumes
Jake Odorizzi 2021 5 16 1/3 7 17 7.16 June 9
Alex Cobb 2018 8 39 1/3 9 22 7.32 May 28
Lance Lynn 2018 8 37 1/3 29 41 7.47 May 22

Odorizzi got wrecked early in his Astros career, and went on the IL with a muscle strain in his arm in late April. Cobb and Lynn mostly righted themselves by the end of May, but neither was really back to their old selves until their next full season. Which for Cobb, who injured basically every part of his body from his thighs to his neck in 2019, meant he wasn’t fully right until 2020 or 2021. How much of that is the result of signing late in 2018? Tough to say for sure, but probably not a lot.

So basically it’s a coin flip whether Snell, Montgomery, or Lorenzen will start the season pitching like their old selves. Certainly interested GMs, not wanting to pay a penny more for these pitchers than they absolutely have to, are going to start presenting that argument to Scott Boras and CAA, respectively, in negotiations. If they haven’t already.

Fair or not, that would presumably only increase the gap between what these players feel they’re worth and what they can actually command on the open market. Wonderful. That’ll definitely make things easier and less contentious.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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steveo
2 months ago

It’s already weird? Unless Snell and Montgomery have already built themselves up some, they won’t be able to throw 100 pitches by the time opening day rolls around. Blake Snell really should’ve taken that 6/160 or whatever it was from the Yankees. Does he even get 100M at this point? I doubt it. Really rough.

Also: we really see the effects of the luxury tax here. If the tax didn’t exist, I’m sure the Yankees, Phillies, etc would be more involved. But the Yankees would have to pay 110% tax to sign anyone at this level. Is Blake Snell worth 70M? Eh probably not.

Last edited 2 months ago by steveo
Syndergaardengnomesmember
2 months ago
Reply to  steveo

Do we know for certain that the Yankees even made that offer?

Could be Boras throwing it out there, considering there’s at least two other teams in the AL East who have the resources, and need for another starting pitcher…

Richiemember
2 months ago

Yup, agents do that sort of thing all the time. Especially Boras, who plays the press like a Stradivarius. (the press generally makes out in the game too)

bglick4
2 months ago

No sir! That would be dishonest. He’d never do such a thing.

Ashburn Alley
2 months ago
Reply to  bglick4

Boras is no more at fault for this than every GM in baseball but for some reason people get off on knocking an agent for doing his job.

RoyalsFan#14321
2 months ago
Reply to  Ashburn Alley

To be fair, we’re knocking Boras because we’re curious about whether or not that $160M was ever real – it makes some difference going forward how Snell should approach his free agency. In my opinion.

Old Washington Senators Fanmember
2 months ago
Reply to  steveo

Problem – teams with low payroll and teams that are bad with low payroll don’t want to take the risk of a multi-year FA pitcher contract and the players, even if they get an offer from say, the Pirates, Nationals, Rockies, etc., don’t want to go there and lose a lot and miss the playoffs.

Catch-22. If I were a contender with payroll room (Orioles, Red Sox – contenders if you squint, Twins), I’d offer these guys a sweet 1-year deal. They may not be ready at the start, but, if handled correctly, will be fresh and healthy for the post-season.

I’ll bet all 3 of these guys sign by St. Patrick’s Day….