Big Ticket Players Still Jobless As 2018 Commences

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry / USA Today

Any fan will tell you baseball is a year round sport. That’s always attracted me to America’s Pastime; spring training starts in February, the playoffs ends in October, then there’s a 15 week player’s reprieve that’s loaded with predicted transactions, one-sided trade rumors, and surprise acquisitions alike. There’s something fun about building a baseball team, as any player of MLB’s The Show will tell you.

So then why aren’t the real front offices building their baseball teams?

Early on, we bore witness to Brian Cashman and John Mozeliak getting off to hot starts this frigid offseason with the assisted dismemberment of the Marlins organization, and Billy Eppler’s Angels won the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes. Other than that, there hasn’t been a bevy of personnel movement. Not including Ohtani, as he may not even play in ’18 and is earning under $3 million, the key signings of 2017-2018 thus far have been Carlos Santana and Wade Davis, who are two of just seven free agents to receive a deal exceeding two years; both guys are also the only players that can boast signing a contract worth more than $38M.

Going back just a year to last offseason, look at the number of high end talents that had found homes by December 23rd: Dexter Fowler, Rich Hill, Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, Justin Turner, Aroldis Chapman, and future hall of famer Carlos Beltran. Nearly every above average MLBer being courted by their agents had signed in the first month of free agency, the exceptions being Kenley Jansen and Edwin Encarnacion. With the juxtaposition of this year and last year’s offseason, it’s no wonder we’ve been left scratching our heads, perplexed by how the hell J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Mike Moustakas, Carlos Gonzalez, and Alex Cobb remain unemployed.

Since the beginning of this year’s free agency period, exactly 15 of the 30 MLB teams have spent a meager 11 million dollars or less. Seven teams haven’t even made a financial commitment to any player, while just three –the Rockies, Phillies and Cubs– have exhausted more than $40M. So while some of us have been disappointed in the Red Sox lack of activity, we’re singing the same swan song as the rest of baseball.

How the 23 teams who have located their change purses have spent their money (negating international signings) is manifested below:

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As we stand right now, Boston’s Opening Day roster in 2018 would have 22, maybe 23 of the 25 men returning from 2017… meaning we’d have a paltry 8% roster turnover from the club that just lost their second consecutive league divisional. Luckily, the first spring training matchup is still seven weeks away – plenty of time to build your club for World Series contention. The fact is, the free agents have to sign. Whether it’s today, or when pitchers and catchers arrive in their respective Grapefruit & Cactus Leagues, that will be dictated by how the market unfurls.

But why hasn’t the market transpired the way that we’re used to seeing? There’s an abundance of reasons, but to me, here are the two most glaring:

1. The pieces are yet to fall into place, because the market hasn’t been set. It’s hard to gauge the value of all the free agents until the stars get paid. When Hosmer, Martinez, or Arrieta finally earn a contract, they can be used as a baseline for the less dominant positional players and pitchers.

2. The insanity of 2018-19’s frenzied class. As the offseason crawls forward, it’s becoming apparent that a lot of front offices have their scopes dialed in on next year’s immensely talented free agent pool of Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel and if he decides to opt out, Clayton Kershaw. So while it might be frustrating to pass on nearly every available player this offseason, you’d hate to see DD waive the white flag on those bonafide superstars, all because Scott Boras convinced him to pay $30 million annually to Hosmer, a players who carries an average seasonal WAR of 2 over the entirety of his career.

Patience is a virtue not often sought. Last season, Encarnacion didn’t sign until January 5th. This was after shunning an offer of 80 million dollars by Toronto, thinking he’d earn over $100M if he were to hold out and sign somewhere else. The end result? Cleveland, for roughly $73 million; EE lost money. To a lesser extent, we can look at Chris Carter. Although he led the National League in jacks, he was jobless until February 16th. His deal? One year in New York for $3M. Point being, the longer the players are left out in the cold, the more desperate they become to link up with an organization, meaning baseball operations presidents can sign their targets with an emphasis on value.

What has made the boring offseason even harder to swallow is the fact that the Bombers added Giancarlo Stanton very early on, and Dave Dombrowski’s corresponding “splash” move was essentially Mitch Moreland. That’s like countering a knockdown left hook to the jaw with an off balance body jab. Getting beside the point a bit here, but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s important not to dump money into a player as a reactionary maneuver. Did Boston panic when New York landed A-Rod back in 2004? No, and the result was a drought ending World Series title. Did New York go into a tizzy when Dombrowski acquired Chris Sale? Also no, and that resulted in the Yanks coming up five innings short of a World Series showdown.

As we saw early on, Dave and the boys took a lot of gruff for not signing Ohtani, not acquiring Stanton or Marcel Ozuna, and never capitulating to the demands Scott Boras made during the JDM and Hosmer negotiations. But as the calendar turns, the strategy behind this year’s offseason actually seems more sensible. Sure, Boston could have wrangled up $300 million for Martinez and Hosmer, but the gamble isn’t worth it. Ever wonder why Anaheim can’t get over the hump, despite the transcending brilliance of Mike Trout? Take a look at the Albert Pujols deal, and then ask yourself if you want a 34 year old Hosmer earning 30 million greenies to do whatever it is he plans on doing in the terminus of his career. Or look in our own backyard, at who Theo and Cherington threw big money to for over a decade.

So with the snail’s pace offseason dragging on through New England’s blizzard season, don’t expect the heat from the Hot Stove to mollify you, but the pros have to sign somewhere, and you can never count Dombrowski out.

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