We Don’t Need a Signing Window. Please Eat More Oatmeal.

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Even with an extra day of February, we’re entering the month of March with several key free agents un-signed. Our no. 5, no. 6, and no. 7-ranked free agentsBlake Snell, Jordan Montgomery, and Matt Chapman — are all headed for a gap year. So are various other useful veterans, like Brandon Belt, J.D. Martinez, and Michael Lorenzen.

It’s not ideal. The teams want to have their rosters set, the players don’t want to miss camp if they can avoid it. It’s not great from a content creation/publicity perspective for either the league or the media. Myself included; when we called dibs on writing up the various big free agent signings last fall, I picked Snell and Monty, and I’ve been jumping out of my skin at every Slack notification I’ve gotten since. I haven’t slept in four months!

And the bigwigs at MLB are getting tetchy about it. Two weeks ago, commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters that the league had proposed a free agent signing period to the union in the last round of CBA talks, with the goal of creating “two weeks of flurried activity” that would dominate SportsCenter and settle everyone’s offseason quickly. Manfred’s argument is that concentrating the action would grab baseball much-needed publicity. Publicity leads to attention, and attention to money. Everyone wins. Yesterday, ESPN’s Alden Gonzalez released a reported feature on the idea, including the blindingly obvious reasons why the union left Manfred on read.

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a trial balloon!

I’m not completely sold on the idea of a free agency period being good for publicity. You certainly see it work in other sports, which have salary caps, but MLB would be trading a wide trickle of news for a brief torrent that ran out before Christmas. After that, there’d be nothing to talk about, apart from the Hall of Fame, for the two months leading up to spring training.

But I remember how much fun the end-of-the-world free agent bacchanal was in the days before the lockout, so let’s stipulate that a big, noisy swap meet is something we all actually want. The obvious question is how the league would enforce a signing period.

According to Manfred, the last formal proposal the league issued came in mid-2021. That involved a seven-day window around the Winter Meetings in which players could sign multi-year contracts. Anyone left unsigned after that would be limited to a one-year deal.

Man, I can’t imagine why the players didn’t go for that. Especially given that it was proposed as the league was ramping up toward locking the union out.

Given the hesitancy teams have shown when it comes to signing veteran free agents — particularly those below the top tier — I find it unlikely that anyone short of a Shohei Ohtani or Corey Seager-level superstar would even get offered a multi-year contract. Why get into a bidding war when you can wait until Day 8 and go back to the days of perpetual one-year contracts? At best, as one agent told Gonzalez, teams would only deliver their best offers right up against the deadline.

Nevertheless, Manfred could have this codified signing period if he wanted to. If, and only if, the owners made it worth the players’ while.

For the entirety of baseball history, ownership has squeezed every dollar possible out of its workforce. Certainly in the past 50-odd years of organized labor. After multiple collusion scandals, the lockout, the pre-lockout capital strike, the draft, the relentless push for a salary cap and limits on amateur spending, the lobbying to exempt minor leaguers from minimum wage laws, and the needless fight over the 2020 season restart, Major League Baseball and this commissioner simply do not have the credibility — with the players or increasingly with the fans — to ask for this in the best interests of the game.

Would condensing free agency actually take money out of players’ pockets? Nobody knows for sure. But I do know that most owners and GMs would use a signing period as an opportunity to try. And no labor union worth its collection of Pete Seeger records would take such a risk on faith. So if Manfred and the owners want a signing period, they can absolutely get it. But it’d cost them.

You know what would animate free agency? An NHL-style model that includes an age backstop for required service time, allowing every player to become an unrestricted free agency after his age-27 season if he so chooses. A lot of the concerns about the current crop of free agents involve their age and long-term production potential — and even as an unabashed pinko socialist, I think these are reasonable concerns.

I don’t know how Chapman’s bat is going to hold up in five years’ time. (Or his glove, for that matter.) Any argument I could make for singing him to something like a six-year, $150 million contract would be normative, and I would expect an owner or executive to be just as dismissive of that argument as I just was of Manfred’s.

But sliding the free agency schedule up a couple years would make the proposition of signing an expensive free agent more palatable, as teams would be paying for more of the player’s peak production.

Or how about making free agency more attractive to teams by reducing the cost gap between fielding a team of rookies and entertaining the free market? The league could have arbitration come earlier in a player’s career, or increase the minimum salary, or institute some form of restricted free agency for players after three years in the majors.

Want something from your union? Horse trading is how to get it. At least, it’s more likely to work than the argument presented by A’s GM David Forst, who acknowledged players’ concerns but said, “It’s not great for the game and the marketing of our game to have this stretched out over five months.”

An A’s executive pontificating about what’s good for the game is ironic enough, given the club’s in-process-of-being-botched move to Las Vegas. But Forst has about as much firsthand knowledge of the free agent market as you or I do; Oakland hasn’t signed a major league free agent to a multi-year contract since December 3, 2019.

Which is the real problem this winter. Most of the usual big players in free agency got their shopping done early: The Dodgers signed Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, then traded for and extended Tyler Glasnow, all before Christmas. The Yankees traded for Juan Soto (and his $31 million salary) in early December, when Manfred wants the action to happen. A month later, they signed Marcus Stroman, reducing their need for Snell or Montgomery.

The Phillies re-signed Aaron Nola and don’t really have any holes to fill that match the remaining free agents. Nor do the Braves or Rangers.

Which leaves up-and-coming teams like the Reds and Orioles, and perpetual median-huggers like the Mariners, in need of help in the rotation, at third base, or both, and in no mood to sign one of the remaining top free agents.

That’s the real problem: Free agency seems to be an optional activity, even for teams that want to be good. Manfred’s ability to influence and cajole the players is limited; if he wants more action in free agency, he needs to look in his own camp for a solution first.

At any rate, a codified signing period is a solution in search of a problem. Why are three top-10 free agents still unsigned? Because while they’re all $100 million players, each represents a non-trivial risk for a contract of that size. Can Snell stay healthy, and if so, can he throw strikes? Will Chapman be as good in the next five years as he was in the past five? Have we just seen the real Montgomery, or is he more of a no. 3 starter than a bona fide playoff ace?

All legitimate questions. The players without such questions — Ohtani, Yamamoto, Nola — all went off the board quickly, just as Manfred would’ve wanted. If there weren’t such a wide variety of opinions about the three remaining standouts, it would be easier to find suitable homes for all of them.

As it is, the offseason has taken on an unusual shape. This much is indisputable. The big teams I’ve mentioned before all got their business done early. The Mets are in a bit of an odd spot, in a year-and-a-half trough before another push for contention. The Padres are re-evaluating their roster going forward after the death of owner Peter Seidler, who built the team into a contender, and are one of several teams facing financial uncertainty regarding their local broadcast deals.

Amid all this, Chapman, Snell, and Montgomery are all represented by an agent, Scott Boras, who likes to take things to the wire and is known for taking a hard line. So much so that two teams with big payrolls and big ambitions — the Dodgers and Braves — generally don’t deal with him.

It’s not clear to me that this is a systemic crisis in need of legislation. For the first century of Major League Baseball as such, there was really only one rule change: the introduction of the designated hitter. Now, in the span of two seasons, the league has added a pitch clock, shift restrictions, tacked on a round of the playoffs, and all manner of other innovations. And now, every time something weird happens — whether it’s lower-seeded teams advancing in the playoffs, Ohtani keeping a lid on his free agency plans, and now three good free agents going into March without a home — we need to change the rules again.

This is an awkward situation, to be sure, but it’s the result of idiosyncratic factors: Where certain teams are in their competitive cycles, the potential collapse of the RSN bubble, even a single agent who might have overplayed his hand. Even if these conditions do persist into the 2024-25 offseason, the teams and agents will be better able to handle the situation by virtue of having been through it before.

So we could sling mud at the union and the agents, rewrite the calendar, question the economic foundations of the sport. Or everyone could chill out. Frustrated by Montgomery’s inaction? So was General Eisenhower, and he won World War II anyway.

Manfred says March is a bad time for free agents to sign. I say it’s a great time to make sure you’re drinking enough water and getting enough fiber in your diet. Everything else will come in due time.

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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2 months ago

I’m just here watching all these shots fired at Manfred and the owners and loving it.

Ya’ll need to let us post gifs so I can properly illustrate the enthusiasm with which I’m nodding along with each “solution in search of a problem” like statement.

2 months ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

You forgot they added see through pants this year not sure the players appreciate the league dangling other changes.

2 months ago
Reply to  dangledangle

Dangling! I see what you did there! (And the players are afraid everyone else can too!)

2 months ago
Reply to  Scoreboard

If there is a Wikipedia entry for the phrase “solution in search of a problem” – Manfred’s picture should be featured.