As you are probably aware, this offseason has delivered an unusually ice-cold start to free agency. The final months of 2017 facilitated little in the way of movement. The new year, meanwhile, has given us Jay Bruce to the Mets.
There are a variety of reasons for this — reasons that have been examined at this site and elsewhere. For starters, more teams are thinking the same way and believe that free agency is often a losing bet for the club. There are undoubtedly some teams waiting and holding cash in reserve until next year’s historic class. There is the new CBA, which has tougher penalties regarding the luxury tax. And Dave Cameron noted on Tuesday — his last real post for the site — how the presence of a few “super teams” might have removed the motivation for clubs to improve and spend.
Peter Gammons briefly outlined the perspective of clubs and agents last week for The Athletic.
Management has argued that agents have overrated their clients’ markets, with no Max Scherzer or Zack Greinke to establish the market. Agents feel this is an industry-wide attempt to make players wait and come down to a lesser market.
Last week, I cataloged which of Dave’s top free agents had signed thus far. Little has transpired in the meantime. As of today, Carlos Santana is the only player among Cameron’s top five to have found a home this offseason. Of Cameron’s top-10 free agents, only three have signed. Of the top 20, just six have a new contract, with Bruce representing the latest. That’s a unusually low volume of transactions.
Typically, as was the case during the previous two offseasons, the majority of top free agents have reached deals with clubs by this point in January.
It’s likely that organizations are merely trying to wait out free agents and drive down prices. It’s logical, after all, that asking prices would decline as players’ anxiety increases, the calendar moving ever closer to the opening of spring training.
While there are some whispers of collusion, a number of other reasonable explanations exist even without having to entertain conspiracy theories. And if players want to guarantee more spending — and earlier spending — in the winter months, they can do so by fighting for changes in the next collective bargaining agreement.
But there is something else of interest at the moment that might explain the ice-cold stove — namely, the significant portion of remaining free agents tied to one agency.
Scott Boras will man the steering wheel for the rest of MLB's winter. His unsigned clients:
— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) December 17, 2017
Perhaps Boras, and his playbook (one that is surely copied by other agents), is also playing a role in this slowdown.
The aforementioned Buster Olney tweet is from Dec. 17. Nearly a month later, not a single one of the clients listed there has signed. Boras has famously said that waiting should not be a problem for players — or, at least not for premium ones. Boras has represented many premium players in the past, often waiting for (and receiving) the deal he wanted.
Said Boras in January of 2013:
“People call me all the time and say, ‘Man, your players aren’t signed yet,'” Boras said. “Well, it doesn’t really matter what time dinner is when you’re the steak.”
It’s a great quip, and Boras is always good for colorful sound bites every offseason. He’s been the most successful agent in the sport’s history. But what if this chapter from the Boras playbook is now outdated? What if this time is different? It will be interesting to see if Boras can get a J.D. Martinez a sixth year, with Martinez apparently comfortable waiting it out. Even with his poor glove and baserunning, though, Martinez is a steak. Few other players are comparable to him. It will be interesting to see how lesser free-agent contracts compare with the crowdsourced projections come March.
While the top free agents — especially the elite, under-30 talent in next year’s class — figure always to command interest, what if the vast majority of “non-steak” free agents increasingly find themselves waiting? What if unreasonably high initial asks are compounding the problem? If we’ve entered a new era in terms of how teams approach free agency, it might end up that waiting, for many players, is no longer the correct approach. Agents and players will have to adjust. Initial demands might have to be more thoughtful and realistically crafted. Complicating matters for Boras is that, with so many clients, many of them are competing against each other for jobs.
In the recent past, when waiting has become an issue for players seemingly without a market — as was the case last offseason, for example, with Matt Wieters — Boras has gone around front offices, directly to ownership. But that might not be a long-term solution, with those front offices becoming more aware of the end-around tactic.
Moreover, agents are increasingly finding it difficult to sell players to front offices awash in data and cold, hard reason. It’s more difficult to inflate the perception of a player’s value. Agents are increasingly having to become creative, as we saw last offseason with the Yoenis Cespedes pitch. Maybe one way to become creative is to find a way to more often appeal to clubs earlier in the offseason.
What we do know is that the waiting game is becoming a more dangerous one for players and agents.