Is This a Fun Offseason?

I keep a physical calendar on the wall by my desk because I don’t want to forget how to use a pen. Glancing up at the boxes and numbers, it appears that today is…February 5. Happy Chinese New Year! Monday afternoon, I received three separate emails regarding the departure of the truck carrying the Mariners’ team gear to Arizona. People used to celebrate pitchers and catchers. Now I guess people celebrate truck day. The symbolism is the same — spring training is right around the corner, with major-league teams taking to major-league(-quality) fields.

And I’m bracing myself to write about a J.T. Realmuto trade. At any minute of any hour, a team might acquire baseball’s best catcher. I’m also bracing myself to write about a Bryce Harper or Manny Machado signing. At any minute of any hour, a team might acquire one of baseball’s best outfielders, or one of baseball’s best infielders. Dallas Keuchel is still out there, too. Ditto Craig Kimbrel and Marwin Gonzalez, among many, lesser others. We know that moves are going to happen, and all of these free agencies will have lucrative conclusions, but it’s hard to feel like the offseason is ending when the offseason stove is still hot to the touch.

For many people, this has gone on long enough. This offseason has gotten obnoxious and stupid, and, won’t teams just do things already? In recent chats, I’ve received several questions asking why baseball’s offseason isn’t more like, say, basketball’s. Now, there’s a variety of reasons why the offseasons move at different speeds. That’s not what I’m here to write and ask about. Rather, consider what we’ve been dealing with. Is this actually bad?

I’m asking as a fan, to you, as fans. And I’m just asking about the pace of things. I’m not so much asking about the state of free agency. I’m not asking you to declare yourself as pro-owner or pro-labor. All I want to get to is the entertainment factor. Is this kind of offseason entertaining, or is this kind of offseason a terrible slog?

I know next to nothing about basketball. The only sport I understand in any great detail is this one. But allow me to insert a comparison table, to show you how these offseasons proceed. On the left, last offseason’s top ten unrestricted NBA free agents, according to Sports Illustrated. On the right, this offseason’s top ten MLB free agents, according to FanGraphs. I’m including the dates the free agents officially signed, according to Sports Reference. Unrestricted NBA free agents were able to start signing on July 6. MLB free agents were able to start signing on November 3.

NBA vs. MLB Offseason Comparison
Player FA Rank Date Signed Player FA Rank Date Signed
LeBron James 1 July 9 Manny Machado 1
Kevin Durant 2 July 7 Bryce Harper 2
Paul George 3 July 6 Patrick Corbin 3 December 7
Chris Paul 4 July 7 Dallas Keuchel 4
DeAndre Jordan 5 July 6 Josh Donaldson 5 November 26
DeMarcus Cousins 6 July 6 Michael Brantley 6 December 19
Derrick Favors 7 July 6 A.J. Pollock 7 January 26
J.J. Redick 8 July 6 Yasmani Grandal 8 January 14
Trevor Ariza 9 July 6 Jed Lowrie 9 January 16
Tyreke Evans 10 July 6 Nathan Eovaldi 10 December 6

You get the point. As is typical, all the best NBA free agents were signed almost immediately. Basketball fans live for the frenzy of the early free-agency period. On the MLB side, only one of the top ten free agents was signed within a month, and three are still out there today. They’re three of the top four. A similar pattern happened last winter. And even in “healthier” offseasons, baseball’s market was always spread out. The NBA offseason doesn’t totally end within three or four days, and the MLB offseason doesn’t always wait several weeks to heat up, but they’ve always been two very different beasts. The winter meetings are the closest the MLB offseason comes to a frenzy, but even that deadline is meaningless and artificial.

I’ve been meaning to put this to a poll. My own opinion has been vacillating. I mean, on the one hand, nothing in baseball can compare to the start of the NBA offseason. There’s never that degree of non-stop action, where the entire landscape of the league can look different from one day to the next. Right now, as I sit and stare at Twitter, I’m just about sick of even reading Bryce Harper’s name. No more rumors. I just want answers. I’m annoyed that no one is providing any answers. I’d like to just move on already.

But then, isn’t this suspenseful? Don’t we typically want suspense? If you’re a fan of the Phillies, you probably feel pretty good about your chances of getting one of the stars, but nothing is guaranteed, and you don’t know when something might happen. You don’t know if things might fall apart. What if you’re a fan of the Padres? Suddenly, the Padres are mixed up in rumors linking them to Harper, Machado, and Realmuto. Maybe that’s simply fantastical thinking, but what if it’s not? What if the Padres are about to make a magnificent splash?

On any given day, there might be news or developments regarding a big-name baseball player. None of us know when anything might go down. Out of the blue last January, the Brewers traded for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain. In an NBA-style offseason, there’s the immediate surge, and then you get used to however the players have settled. In an MLB-style offseason, there is no surge, but more fans might remain engaged, and for a longer period of time. When a great basketball player picks a team, fans of that team get to think about the basketball player. When a great baseball player remains on the market, fans of *lots* of teams get to think about the baseball player. And then, eventually, there’s a move. There’s resolution. It’s like a raffle where you don’t know when they’ll be doing the drawing.

I can talk myself into enjoying this offseason. Other times, I realize I’m having to talk myself into enjoying it. And I genuinely don’t know how the alternative feels. I think I prefer the MLB offseason, at least in theory. But this is why I’m including a poll. I’d like to know how the audience feels about all this. Aside from the specifics, regarding labor issues and a potential future work stoppage. All I’m asking about is the NBA’s chaos versus the MLB’s sluggish unpredictability. Do you like that baseball gives you something to think about 12 months a year, or do you crave the high of an ephemeral offseason free-for-all? I leave it now in your hands.

We hoped you liked reading Is This a Fun Offseason? by Jeff Sullivan!

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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RMD4
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RMD4

I feel nothing in the means of suspense. It’s downright shameful that two players who were good enough to be called up at 19 and be perennial All-Stars who have major hardware like an MVP trophy and a platinum glove are not getting major offers so that they can make their team substantially better.

The win curve is an actual thing and so many teams are sitting there as revenues rise and are simply… ¯\_(?)_/¯

ascheff
Member
Member
ascheff

They did get major offers though. Harper had 10/300 on the table from the Nats before the offseason even started. I don’t blame Harper or Machado for holding out to get the best possible deal – they definitely deserve the money more than the owners. It’s disingenuous though to suggest that the reason they aren’t signed is because they haven’t been offered a ton of money.

The reason they haven’t signed is because they have been offered a ton of money and think there’s a chance teams will blink and offer more than a ton of money as the season comes closer, which might work out for them.

FrodoBeck
Member
FrodoBeck

I typed up my above comment before reading yours. I agree entirely with what you’ve said here and I more or less said the same thing, just elsewhere.

soddingjunkmail
Member
soddingjunkmail

But they’re asking for 10 years.

Once upon a time, contracts like that didn’t exist and players and agents over time very rightfully pushed the envelope to get bigger and longer contracts. At some point though, there’s a tipping point where contracts reach a length where it’s just untenable for teams. (15 years is clearly too much, and 5 years is clearly doable, so where’s the line?)

My memory stinks, but I can’t remember a 10 year contract signed that the team hasn’t ended up regretting and it may be that teams have decided that 10 years is just too much. Maybe (probably?) I’m the idiot, but I think if those guys were looking for 7 or 8 years, they’d have suitors lined up around the block.

dl80
Member
dl80

Yankees and Jeter from 2001-2010.

rmosutton
Member
rmosutton

… under which the Yankees failed to move him off short in favor of the far-better defensive player in 2004. Had they done so, they could later (2014) have not had to keep playing him there, which statistically cost them a playoff position that year (three defensive wins cost, one offensive win vs. a league-average SS, missed by four games). It’s a stretch, but perhaps under a much shorter contract they might have felt more comfortable moving him in 2004 when ARod arrived.

Famous Mortimer
Member

Do you really think the Yankees regret Jeter’s contract?

zurzles
Member
Member
zurzles

Rangers ended up trading him but ARod was worth every penny of his 10 year deal. That’s a thing that can happen when the deal starts in a player’s mid-20s and not early-mid-30s.

delv213
Member
delv213

Manny Ramirez was also worth every penny from his deal that he signed with the Red Sox.

rosen380
Member

Not a 10 year deal though

Mike
Member
Member
Mike

It drives me crazy to this day how the popular narrative was that the contract to A-Rod (Gold Glove caliber SS who was hitting 50-ish HR a year) crippled the Rangers and made them unable to compete.

But the Rangers’ payroll would have been highest in the division BEFORE taking A-Rod’s contract into account. The Rangers didn’t win because they didn’t have enough good players. Not because they had the best (or one of the few best, at least) player in the AL.

User79
Member
User79

I agree, I think 10 years is too long, and teams have figured that out. Even if the player plays well enough over 10 years to justify some kind of WAR value formula, that doesn’t take into consideration the years where a team is not in contention, and doesn’t get value from additional WAR.

This is why the Rangers got rid of A-rod. Not that they weren’t justifying their contracts, but that it wasn’t going to help the team get into contention, and was just dragging down a rebuild.

I would also venture to say that no team has the ability to contend for 10 years in a row. Even the best run teams will have periods where they don’t contend. Like it or not, team owners seem aligned on a strategy of contend, or don’t contend and rebuild.

RMD4
Member
RMD4

A-rod was definitely worth the first 10 year deal he signed. The Rangers got more value that what they paid, which is what everybody tries to do in any transaction.

It just so happens they were in a 4 team divisions during the 3 year stretch where it may have been the most fiercely competitive stretch in such a short time. From 01-03, The A’s and Mariners both averaged win total was over 100 wins a year. And the Angels won a World Series. They had the bad luck of signing a truly generational talent at the worst possible time.

User79
Member
User79

I agree A rod was worth his first 10 year deal. My point was that even if a player can be worth his deal in wins value, that doesn’t necessarily translate to value for a team. In a year where they’re no longer contending and want to rebuild, those wins are worth zero.

So that’s why 10 year contracts are too long, in essence there’s negative value in the inflexibility.

RMD4
Member
RMD4

Nobody knows what will happen 10 years from now yes, but you need to sign 10 year deals to extraordinary players if you’re at the right spot on the win curve for what can reasonably be contending for the next foreseeable few years.

The surplus value of a Machado or Harper pushing the needle into a playoff spot the next few years adds more than enough revenue to cover the backend, which won’t be as fruitful. (And those players are only 26, so it’s not like you’re signing them until their 40s)

My original point was when the Rangers signed A-Rod, they were a miserable team and playing in a division that just had two playoff teams, as well as a talented Angels team that would win the World Series in a couple years. The Rangers were not the team to have gotten the most out of his talents.

Nats Fan
Member
Nats Fan

I’m not a believer that having a superstar on a rebuilding team has zero value in terms of ticket prices and TV viewership. It may be a waste of that superstars greatness that he plays on losers, but I have little doubt that some fans will pay to see a superstar play during his prime even if he is surrounded by dunces. Cause I will! The Orioles sold some tickets last year because of Machado that won’t be sold this year.

User79
Member
User79

That’s a fair point, there’s not zero value. But there’s likely not $8 million/WAR, like is being used for analysis.

Also I think we should consider that teams may have better ways of improving a team over 10 years with $300 million dollars. Better player development, scouting, signing high ceiling prospects, all that costs money. Not to mention the analytics that goes into all of that.

Ultimately you need to maximize the value return of every dollar.

I haven’t done the substantial analysis on whether a 10 year/$300 million contract to machado/harper is the best way to spend money to improve a team. But I bet the Yankees/Dodgers, etc. have.

Famous Mortimer
Member

What about what’s best for us fans? Are you interested about that at all? Because honestly, that comment didn’t sound like it came from a baseball fan.

ThomServo
Member
ThomServo

What are you talking about- baseball talent is a fixed pool, its zero-sum as far as ‘fans’ (in the aggregate) being happy/sad about player transactions.

The zero sum nature makes the timing issue a bit moot- while its better to hear good news early, it might be more enjoyable for bad news to be delayed. Consider each MLB season- nearly every team falls well short of goals, but the delayed bad news and suspense in the meantime is big part of why we follow.

Poll results from this article will be heavily tainted by the nonstop PR on this exact issue- i.e. all the hysteria that a slow offseason for Boras clients means baseball has lost its soul.

willl
Member
willl

There are a ton of examples.

Helton signed a 9 year extension when he already had 2 years remaining for a total of 11year/$150m in 2001. That contract was worth every penny.

Posey’s 9/$167m or 10/$189m including the team option, has already paid for itself, and it still has 3-4 years left on it.

Andrus signed a 8 year extension plus 1 option year, while he was still under control for 2 more years, totalling 10/$137m. Andrus just needs to put up about 3.0 WAR total over the next four seasons for that deal to have been worth it.

Longoria signed a 10/$136m deal. While it’s a bit of an albatross now, Longoria’s been worth 20.1 WAR since signing, so if 1 WAR is worth more than $6.5m, it’s already been worth it.

Ryan Braun signed a 5 years extension in the middle of a 7 year deal. Altogether, when signing in 2011 it amounted to a 10/$145m deal. Since then he’s been worth 26.2 WAR. Not a bad deal.

Votto signed a 10/$225m deal. Since 2014, he’s been worth 23.3 WAR, and the deal isn’t looking very fair for the Reds.

rosen380
Member

Best I can tell, here are all of the 10 (+) year deals in MLB history where there were no ‘would-have-been’ arbitration years included
2001 Jeter
2001 A-Rod
2007 A-Rod
2012 Pujols
2014 Votto
2014 Cano

For any active contracts, I used STEAMER for 2019, -0.5 fWAR per year for aging and $8M per win for 2019 plus $0.5 per year. Here are those deals by the percentage of value to contract amount:

133% A-Rod (2001)
131% Votto
118% Jeter
113% Cano
73% A-Rod (2007)
14% Pujols

User79
Member
User79

Thanks for this. I don’t think we can just project Votto and Cano’s contracts using -.5 fWAR per year for aging, at least not just 4 years in. If we did that, every long term contract would appear worth it at the beginning. I believe the current perception is that the risk of a player’s career simply cratering is scaring teams away from long term contracts.

For example, if we take out Votto and Cano, then we see that one A-rod contract was good, one was bad, Jeter’s was good, and Pujols’ was terrible.

We now also see that the upside to a 10 year contract is definitely there, but not nearly as much as a potential downside.

Jon
Member
Jon

Meanwhile, nearly every good starting pitcher (including the best one), lots of other good hitters, and basically 9999 out of the top 1000 relievers have signed.

If anything is shameful, it’s the Players Association and random writers doing their best fear mongering and using the fact that handful of players aren’t signed yet as a sign that the sky is falling.

There are a few players who have an inflated notion of their value, and teams are smarter than they used to be. If anything it would be more surprising if everyone good was signed already, since that would mean that all of them had reasonable expectations.

DBA455
Member
Member
DBA455

It’s a fair point that despite the “over 100 free agents unsigned!” fear-mongering from Boras (and like-minded writers), I think many/ most Fangraphs readers would be hard-pressed to name even a dozen guys they actually care about watching next year who are on that list. And that’s from a self-selected audience that presumably cares much more about this stuff than the ‘average’ fan!

Appreciating that not everyone’s tastes run to fantasy baseball, there’s a pretty good overlap between that audience and the passionate baseball fan audience. After you get past the obvious (Harper/Machado/Keuchel/Kimbrel), how many guys are left that one would deem relevant in a fake baseball league? Moustakas. Marwin, I guess. But that’s … pretty much it*?

Name me a free agent pitcher besides the two above that move the needle from a fan-interest perspective? Oh, Gio Gonzalez. So there’s that.

(*Adam Jones strikes me as a guy with name value – but limited on-field value – where the bid/ask is going to be painfully wide between the self-/agent-perception of “5-time All Star!” at who knows how many millions per year and the GM/analytics perception of “league average bat/mediocre corner OF/slightly better Curtis Granderson – who just signed for $2/1).

As I believe Jeff has said earlier, it was naive to think that this Harper negotiation was going to get resolved anywhere but the last possible moment. Which is fine – it’s entirely his prerogative to wait. He *should* be trying to maximize his leverage. Just as the clubs should.

But it’s silly for Boras to light the house on fire and then complain about the smoke.

Mike
Member
Member
Mike

In terms of how baseball players are being treated by owners, I feel like minor leaguers have a much more reasonable case for being treated shamefully than MLB players do.

Yes, it’s likely that the poorly-negotiated CBA is costing superstars money, but they’re at least going to be paid tens of millions of dollars. Meanwhile, the MLB lobbied Congress (successfully!) to exempt themselves from having to pay minimum wage to minor leaguers.

Regardless, ownership sucks so I’m OK with people complaining about that fact. But most of the high-end of the MLB free agent market is dealing with making fewer millions than they might in a different system. Sure, that’s not really fair, and I certainly would rather see players get the money instead of owners, but it’s not like Bryce Harper is going to have to share a 2-bedroom apartment with 3 teammates this year.

But again, MLB and their owners are certinaly slimy, so I guess I’ll just be happy that it’s at least being discussed in mainstream media outlets. “Owners are bad” is a sentiment that I can definitely get behind!

The Guru
Member
The Guru

Yep, it’s almost modern day slavery what the owners are doing to some of these Minor leaguers with over 6 year minor league deals paying them mystery meat food and 1000$/month. Why do you think more and more teams are signing only and favor Latin players.

Nats Fan
Member
Nats Fan

They make more in the minors than adjunct college professors earn to teach. Just saying.

sadtrombone
Member
sadtrombone

1) This is not true, at least not most places.
2) If it was true, it would still emphasize how little they get paid.

Sleepy
Member
Sleepy

Yeah, this isn’t correct–my wife did the adjunct thing for a couple years and made around $40k. Minor league players don’t come anywhere close to that.

SenorGato
Member
SenorGato

If this is even true this makes it OK! It’s just good business!

GoNYGoNYGoGo
Member
Member
GoNYGoNYGoGo

Maybe because Latin-America players who are not subject o the draft don’t get the $$1 million – $100K bonuses that a 1st – 10th round draftee gets?