It’s January, and the story of the offseason is that it’s actually lived up to its monicker. Outside of Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Otani‘s respective moves to new teams essentially on the same day, MLB clubs have been in hibernation this winter. And so instead of evaluating trades or free-agent contracts, we’re left instead to ponder what is causing the inaction.
The potential culprits are numerous. If you’re inclined to see owners as evil profiteers, it’s easy to talk yourself into a collusion theory. Or this is the consequence of the Players Association accepting a luxury tax that might be acting as a de facto salary cap. Or maybe it’s just that every team has figured out that prices go down as spring training draws closer, so now everyone is trying the same wait-it-out game plan. Or maybe these particular free agents just aren’t that good. Or maybe it’s that next year’s free agents are too good.
Each of those theories seem to have some validity, and I think there’s probably a bit of most of that going on. But I think there’s also an explanation that makes everyone’s passivity perfectly rational: a lack of sufficient divisional competition to create the sort of pressure that justifies high-risk free-agent signings.
If you look at our current forecasts, there are only two divisions that don’t look like runaways right now. The AL East, which features both the Red Sox and Yankees with 91-win projections, and the NL Central, which has the 92-win Cubs four games ahead of the 88-win Cardinals, are two divisions that don’t have a decisive favorite at the moment. And not coincidentally, those are the divisions where we’re seeing some activity.
The Yankees have already made the offseason’s biggest move, taking most of Giancarlo Stanton’s contract in a trade with the Marlins. It wasn’t technically a free-agent signing, but given what they sent back, it acted as one, as they got a star player for not much more than a big chunk of cash. The Red Sox, meanwhile, are believed to have a five-year standing offer to J.D. Martinez, who is holding out for six years, but is very likely to end up in Boston for something like $30 million a year. The two behemoths of the AL East are loading up on sluggers, because right now, each needs to be afraid of the other.
In the NL Central, the Cubs haven’t yet made their big move, but they have spent pretty aggressively on depth pieces, signing Tyler Chatwood, Steve Cishek, Brandon Morrow, and Drew Smyly. The Rockies are the only other team to have signed four big-league free agents thus far this winter. And the Cubs almost certainly aren’t done, as they continue to be linked to the top free-agent starters on the market, including Yu Darvish. On Chicago’s north side, this hasn’t really been a slow offseason.
And that’s because the Cardinals aren’t surrendering the division just yet. St. Louis has only signed Luke Gregerson and Miles Mikolas to free-agent deals, but they made the winter’s second-biggest trade so far, landing Marcell Ozuna from the Marlins to bolster their outfield. They’ve also been linked to Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, and basically any reliever who could pitch the ninth inning, so they probably have another few moves coming. Like the Cubs, they haven’t really been slow playing this winter, and they aren’t done yet.
If everyone had behaved to this point like the Red Sox, Yankees, Cubs, and Cardinals, we probably wouldn’t be talking about a slow-moving offseason. It’s really the other 26 teams — and particularly the 20 teams in the other four divisions — that have taken a wait-and-see approach, because no one is around to apply any real pressure.
In the AL Central, we have the Indians with an 11-game advantage over the Twins right now. Normally, a mid-revenue club that lost a guy like Carlos Santana, had Andrew Miller and Cody Allen on expiring contracts, and knows it can’t count on Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco forever would be heavily incentivized to push their chips to the middle of the table and take advantage of a championship-caliber club while they had the chance. But without a strong challenger for the division title, the Indians don’t really need to spend big this winter. They can head into camp with something like their current roster, evaluate their team in the first half, and then make the necessary adjustments in July or August if need be.
Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that J.D. Martinez was traded for a package of nothing prospects, and the Indians grabbed Jay Bruce for nothing more than salary in a waiver trade. If a team just recently experienced almost-free midseason upgrades and thinks those conditions might exist again and they have the benefit of a huge lead in their division heading into the season, why take on the risk of a long-term contract?
The same perfectly rational inertia could be applied to the Nationals (also projected at 11 games better than the Mets, their next-closest competitor), the Dodgers (+10 wins over Arizona), and the Astros (+9 wins over Anaheim), who would need a lot of things to go wrong to miss the playoffs in 2018. There’s some desire to upgrade now simply to stay ahead of the other “super teams” currently floating around, but again, if you think the prices at the deadline are going to be anything like last year’s prices, then there’s no real need to build your October roster over the winter. Just put a good regular-season team on the field and adjust accordingly when the sellers start dumping free agents to be.
These big divisional gaps have a depressing effect on the challengers’ motivation to upgrade, as well. The market relies on having enough second-tier clubs who are trying to climb the ladder to bid up players with short-term value, but we don’t have a single team projected for 85, 86, or 87 wins. After the Cardinals and Angels, it’s a big drop down to the Diamondbacks (84 wins), Blue Jays (83 wins), and Twins (82 wins), each of which is incentivized to stay in the Wild Card race, but probably not enough to throw $30 million a year at a risk-heavy free agent on a long-term contract.
Arizona, Colorado, Pittsburgh, and Toronto all have one of their best players headed for free agency at the end of the season as it is, so signing a big acquisition to an expensive contract might preclude them from keeping their own better player — or at least render it more difficult to make a pivot to building for the future this summer if they fall out of the race in the first half. For these clubs with low-80s win projections, a midseason sell-off is a real possibility if things go south, and you don’t necessarily want to be dumping talent right after spending $100-plus million on a guy who probably isn’t going to provide that much long-term value.
Instead, in that situation, everyone has decided to try to keep their options open. The Rockies have spent a bunch of money signing relievers, but if things go badly in the first half, they probably are thinking they might be able to trade guys like Wade Davis, Jake McGee, and Bryan Shaw, so these might not really be long-term commitments. The Blue Jays are picking up depth guys like Yangervis Solarte who can help raise their floor for the time being but also serve as a big-league third baseman for the second half if they end up having to trade Donaldson.
Instead of passivity, perhaps the spending on relievers and useful role players suggests that many teams are willing to make deals, but only deals that don’t force them down a certain path in 2018. Like an unattached swiper chatting with 15 potential hookups on Tinder, these sorta-contenders seem to want options, not commitment.
The unsigned guys? They’re the commitment types. They’re the ones to whom you give no-trade clauses, or enough money that the contract they sign effectively becomes a no-trade clause in itself. The best teams don’t really need to take these risks right now: in four of the six divisions, we don’t have a real contender for the throne. And the teams hanging around the fringes of the Wild Card race don’t see moving the needle a bit on getting to a one-game play-in contest as a big enough reward to take on the risk of one of these free agents with warts.
The CBT, the impending free agency of some of the game’s best players, and the recent bargains we saw at the trade deadline are likely real variables in this outcome as well. But mostly, I think this may just be about a legitimate lack of competition. MLB has six highly valuable division titles, and four of them are already all but spoken four. Right now, it looks pretty easy to handicap nine of the 10 potential playoff teams, or at least the heavy favorites for those spots heading into the season.
The lack of in-season competition may also be driving the lack of offseason competition. The good news for MLB is that this is very likely cyclical, and a few of these “super teams” will be getting worse in the future, while big-market up-and-comers will present a more serious threat to the dominant division reigns we’re seeing now. While long-lasting league parity remains a problem, this looks like it could be a one-year issue, as we’re going to have some intense bidding wars for talent next year.
And if enough of these bubble teams decide to just take the risk and push in, it might cause a chain reaction that makes this whole story go away anyway. For instance, if the Twins get Yu Darvish, then maybe the Blue Jays get Lorenzo Cain and Alex Cobb, which pressures the Red Sox to cave and give J.D. Martinez that sixth year, which gives the Astros enough incentive to trade for both Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen, and then we have ourselves a real offseason.
Right now, a bunch of teams are comfortable. Too comfortable. It only takes a couple of dominos to fall to change that, and I wouldn’t be surprised if just a few moves caused a winter’s worth of transactions to happen real fast.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.