LAS VEGAS — The Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino was, in some ways, the most appropriate host for baseball’s winter meetings: After all, this offseason was once expected to be punctuated by announcements of record-setting, high-dollar free-agency deals. Bryce Harper, a premier free agent, is a Las Vegas native. But away from the din of the casino floor, a podium set up for press conferences in a vast ballroom was largely quiet last week. After last winter marked the slowest signing period in at least the previous 18 years, this offseason is starting even more slowly, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of free-agent data.
Teams already seemed less interested in giving time on the field to players over the age of 30 — the time frame in which many players first become eligible for free agency. But now, early in the offseason, teams also seem increasingly less willing to spend on any free agent.
Consider that through Monday, 50 days after the World Series concluded, only 5.2 percent of available free-agent players1 had signed major league deals for guaranteed money, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis of data from The Baseball Cube. Fifty days after the end of the 2017 World Series, 5.5 percent of available free agents had signed. Two years ago that number was 9.2 percent. In the three offseasons prior to that winter — 2015-16, 2014-15 and 2013-14 — it was 9.2, 7.8 and 10.9 percent respectively.
Through Monday, $442.5 million had been spent on free agents. That’s down from $469.8 million at the same point last year, which was down from $976.5 million in the winter of 2016-17, $1.401 billion in 2015-16, $1.173 billion in 2014-15 and $1.229 billion through the middle of December 2013.
“We’ll closely monitor developments,” an MLB Players Association spokesperson said to FiveThirtyEight last month. “If 30 clubs are competing for a pennant, the free-agent market for players will be robust.”
But fewer teams seem interested in competing.
The Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks, 2018 contenders, are retooling. The American League Central champion Cleveland Indians have shed payroll in a weak division they can likely win without spending on free agents.
And teams seem to have learned, collectively, to wait out free agents. Thirty-five free agents signed guaranteed major league deals last year between Feb. 1 and opening day,2 compared with 18 in 2017, 13 in 2016, 10 in 2015 and 13 in 2014. The longer free agents wait, the fewer dollars they’re typically awarded.
Even the star free agents are having to wait.
Consider that in the not-so-distant past, top players had usually signed by now. Just look at the contracts inked before Christmases past: On Dec. 1, 2015, David Price signed the richest deal ever for a starting pitcher (seven years and $217 million) with the Boston Red Sox, and he was followed three days later by Zack Greinke, who signed a six-year, $206.5 million deal with Arizona. On Dec. 10 of the previous year, Jon Lester signed a $155 million deal with the Chicago Cubs. And in 2013, Robinson Cano signed a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Seattle Mariners on Dec. 6, just three days after Jacoby Ellsbury signed a seven-year, $153 million deal with the Yankees.
But the five richest contracts of last offseason were awarded after Jan. 24. And only one contract so far this offseason has topped $100 million
There are other factors behind the slow down, said Chaim Bloom, vice president of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays. His club reportedly signed pitcher Charlie Morton on Dec.12.
“I’m hesitant to call something a trend before having [enough] information to really say this is a new normal — it might just be a slight shift in the timetable,” Bloom said to FiveThirtyEight last week. “There is a lot more information available. Teams increasingly like to have more and more information before making decisions. That may push some things later in the calendar. I also think — and this offseason is a good example of it — staff movement and staff [hirings] are taking up a larger chunk of offseason. … The more coaching staffs and front offices grow, the more time that is going to take [in early offseason].”
Have teams learned to wait out the market?
“I don’t know if it’s ideal for clubs, necessarily,” Bloom said of the slower markes. “You want to go into spring training knowing who you have.”
Free agency has become more and more a battleground between teams and players. Clubs are accused of suppressing the service time of potential stars so as to control their prime years at cheaper salaries. Teams also seem to be wary of allocating a large share of their payroll to one player. Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million deal with the Yankees — signed Dec. 13, 2007 — remains the record for a free-agent contract even as MLB revenues have increased from $6 billion in 2007 to exceeding $10 billion in 2017.
Regardless of whether free-agent superstars Harper and Manny Machado set contract records, they are expected to receive guaranteed dollars well into nine figures. The greater concern for the union is what another slow-to-develop market means for the middle class of free agents — which represents the vast majority of players.
A slow-to-develop market forced unsigned players to create their own spring training camp last year in Bradenton, Florida. David Freese knows this trend well. After the former World Series MVP finished the 2015 season with 2.2 wins above replacement, he sought a lucrative, multiple-year contract. But he had to settle in March for a one-year, $3 million deal with the Pirates.
“It was a tough situation to handle,” Freese said in 2016. “The waiting, it challenges your heart. Sitting around while guys are out playing [in spring training] … seeing games, seeing guys in the field.”
Rather than test free agency this winter after the Dodgers were likely to turn down his $6 million club option, he re-signed with the club on a one-year, $4.5 million deal.
Freese isn’t the only player to take that approach. Josh Donaldson — the 2015 A.L. MVP — agreed to a one-year, $23 million deal with Atlanta on Nov. 26. He was joined by 18 other free agents signing contracts for just one year, making up 67.9 percent of the 28 signings so far through Monday. That’s the greatest share of one-year contracts signed through the first 50 days of the offseason over the past six winters. (The next closest was 52 percent in 2016-17.)
Some of these players may have decided to bet on themselves on shorter-term deals in the hopes of maximizing their future earning potential. Or perhaps they are responding to seeing players with hopes of signing lucrative multi-year deals last offseason, like Mike Moustakas and Neil Walker, languish on the market until spring training had started.
Free agents across the game appear to be in store for another longer wait. Perhaps this is the new normal.
Sara Ziegler contributed research.