The Timing Of Free Agent Contracts Hasn’t Really Changed

As Dave Cameron noted during his weekly appearance on FanGraphs Audio on Monday, there has been a flurry of transactions in the past week. It got me wondering, is this part of a new trend, or is it really just business as usual? The answer, it seems, is the latter.

Using various Hot Stove Trackers at MLB.com and Free Agent Trackers at MLB Trade Rumors, I’ve cribbed together a pretty good list of when free agents have signed over the past three offseasons. It should be taken with a grain of salt. The timing of contracts may not always be 100% correct. For instance, we learned of Yoenis Cespedes‘ signing in February of 2012, but the contract wasn’t made official until March. I listed him here in March, but he could just as easily be listed in February. There is likely to be some fudging around the edges in terms of players who signed near the end of a month. And then of course there is the possibility that I missed some free agents as well. But with those caveats, I think the data is pretty interesting. Let’s take a look:

FA 1

This is a bit of a surprise. But during the past two offseasons, there have been more November signings than there have this year. There is of course still a few days left in this November, so if an enterprising team didn’t feel like taking Thanksgiving off, they could draw this number even.

Then I thought to myself, perhaps trades help even the score. We’ve already seen one mega-trade this offseason, and there have been five this month in total (I think…I’m pretty sure). Perhaps that has made it seem like there have been more comings and goings in the early stages of the offseason. But that’s not really the case either. Last year, there were seven trades executed during November. Among them were the Tommy HansonJordan Walden exchange, the deal that sent Denard Span to the Nationals and of course, the gigantic trade between the Blue Jays and Marlins that sent Jose Reyes and company north of the border. So that isn’t the reason.

Still though, it does seem like this November is a bit different. One thing that we know instinctually is that many of the signings we see in the early going are for teams re-signing holdover players. For example, Mariano Rivera was technically a free agent last winter, but no one really expected him to leave New York. So when he re-signed with the Yankees, for the most part, we shrugged our shoulders and got back to the business of creating half-baked trade scenarios. So I went ahead and sorted the signings by whether or not the player signed with the team for which he had most recently played, or if he signed with a new team. Let’s take a look:

FA 2

Here we see a bit of a shift towards this year. Since the regular season ended, 20 players have signed with new teams, as opposed to 15 and 12 in the previous two offseasons, respectively. There has also been a sense that the contracts this year have been a little meatier. With the two Cuban sensations, Jose Dariel Abreu and Alexander Guerrero, plus the deals for Jason Vargas, Jhonny Peralta and Brian McCann, we’ve had some nice multi-year deals to sink our teeth into. Last year we had B.J. Upton‘s contract, and the year before that there were the even more ill-fated reliever spending deals for Jonathan Papelbon and Jonathan Broxton, but that was about it on deals spanning more than two years. Even the two-year deals this winter have been interesting. Tim Hudson gets to (likely) finish his career in the Bay Area, David Murphy got a multi-year deal after his disastrous 2013 campaign at the dish and Marlon Byrd went from getting just an invitation to spring training to a two-year deal in the span of one year. Even the vesting option on Josh Johnson’s one-year deal is interesting — I can’t say that I’ve seen that before.

So the numbers say not much has changed. Teams get after it early. Nearly as much business is transacted in November as in January, and sometimes more gets done in November. There have been some splashier signings this year than in the past two offseasons, but with the game swimming in money, perhaps that shouldn’t be as surprising as it has seemed.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Looks like those Winter Meetings are to blame for the flow of these charts.