by Dr Lefty
Another week has gone by, and we’re almost to 2018. Spring training camps open in about 6 1/2 weeks. This free agent/trade tracker tells the story*: If you skim through it, you see very few signings or trades of any major consequence. Obviously the trades of Giancarlo Stanton, Marcel Ozuna, and Evan Longoria were substantial, and Wade Davis’s three-year, $52 million contract signed with the Rockies is a nice chunk of change for a closer (better average-annual value than the Giants gave Melancon, for example).
*Oddly, though, it doesn’t include Matt Moore being traded to Texas or the Dodgers’/Braves’ mutual salary dump a couple weeks ago.
Of the top 50 free agents listed here, 22 have signed new deals–but only six of those 22 were ranked in the top-20 free agents, and one, Shohei Ohtani (#1), was not a free agent in the same sense that the others were (because he was a bargain and obviously was going to be signed). The others in the top 20 who have been signed are Zack Cozart (#10), Carlos Santana (#12), Wade Davis (#13), Yonder Alonzo (#19), and CC Sabathia (#20)–though arguably, Sabathia shouldn’t count, either, having simply and predictably re-upped with his current team. Other than Davis and Sabathia, these are not exactly marquee names. Still unsigned are J.D. Martinez, Yu Davish, Lorenzo Cain, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, and Mike Moustakas, to list the top names; in the next tier down are Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, and Todd Frazier. Nine of the 22 who have signed are relief pitchers and four are starting pitchers (counting Ohtani). Meanwhile, on the trade front, the Marlins have made three major trades (the two outfielders and Dee Gordon), there was obviously the Stanton trade, and our Longoria trade. The Cardinals still have too many outfielders, and so do the Yankees. The Rays have too many middle infielders, including former Giants Matt Duffy and Christian Arroyo. It’s a strange year.
Why is this all happening?
In the absence of actual signings and trades to write about, baseball writers are turning to analyses of why the market is so incredibly slow. There seem to be three main reasons.
- The new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), negotiated in 2016, created both limited growth in the salary cap (competitive balance/luxury tax line, or CBT) and harsher penalties for exceeding it, especially for repeat offenders. Before the new CBA, it was assumed that the CBT line would go up more quickly than how it actually turned out. (Many observers feel that the players’ union got taken for a ride last year due to an inexperienced new chief.) Since it didn’t, teams are adjusting to the new rules, and…
- The biggest spending teams have been over the luxury tax line for years, so they’re well into repeat offender territory. And the penalties go beyond just money, which the Yankees, Dodgers, and Giants can afford to pay–they get into more painful consequences, such as lost draft picks and international bonus money. All three teams, as of this moment, have stated and acted upon their intention to get under the tax line this year to re-set the penalties because…
- The free agent class following the 2018 season is a monster, and all teams want to be ready to jump into that market. They don’t want to pay 50% penalties on exceeding the CBT (which will go up by another $10 mil next year), and they don’t want to give up extra draft picks. That free agent class is more appealing than this year’s free agent class.
These three factors, taken together, are keeping the richest teams mostly off the market, with the exception of the Yankees jumping at the opportunity to get Stanton. Even so, they’re expected to stay under the $197 mil CBT for 2017-18.
What happens next?
Well, teams still need to fill the holes on their roster. The Giants, for example, still need an outfield. So there will be activity. But overall, it’s a buyers’ market. Teams with assets to trade will have to decide when/if to jump at interest from other teams. For instance, if the Reds want a king’s ransom for Billy Hamilton and the Giants sign Jarrod Dyson or Austin Jackson to place-hold for Steven Duggar, the Reds may have lost an opportunity there. On the opposite end, free agents who want to pick their best spot for the most money and best terms can’t wait too long, or the Giants might pull off a trade for Billy Hamilton (etc.). I think the GMs who want to sign and/or trade for players are in better spots than the free agent players, their agents, and GMs of teams who want to trade assets for a good return. As I said–it’s a buyers’ market. But right now it’s a giant (and Giant) game of chicken. (Maybe it’s the wife/mother in me, too, but I also think of the free agents whose wives are saying “Look, pal. We have to find a rental for spring training. Should it be in Arizona or Florida? Tick tock.”)
What should the Giants do?
Having offloaded two pricey liabilities (Moore and Span), acquired a quality third baseman and traded a good prospect (Arroyo), the Giants should not consider themselves desperate to make moves. If they can’t get the Reds to take a reasonable offer for Hamilton (or the Pirates for McCutchen or the Cardinals for Grichuk, and so forth), they can fall back to the options of hiring a cheap CF placeholder or simply handing the keys to Duggar, ready or not. In my opinion, they should not trade anyone else from their top prospect list. Ramos, Shaw, Beede, Suarez, and Duggar should be untouchable. Perhaps Aramis Garcia (blocked) or Garrett Williams (still in the lower minors) are tradeable, or a reliever (e.g., Strickland or Dyson) or outfielder (Williamson/Parker) off the major league roster. But there is no one out there who’s so significant to the Giants’ 2018 hopes that they ought to sell off the few attractive prospects that they do have.
So my Rule #1 is “Don’t trade a top prospect.” Rule #2 is “Don’t exceed the CBT, but don’t leave cap room just sitting there, either.” They should spend as close to the CBT as they can without going over. They owe it to the fans (and it’s good business) to put a more appealing product on the field for 2018. A caveat to the second rule would be “but not if the free agent permanently blocks a good prospect–such as a 30-something left fielder on a long-term deal who blocks Shaw or Scott Feldman blocking Beede–and not if the deal ties the team’s hands for too long into the future.”
In any event, as much as I’m itching for Bobby Evans to DO something, dammit, about the outfield (I have trust issues after last year), objectively I can see that it is a buyers’ market, that some combination of options will fall into place, and that the Giants are only helped by the absence of panic (but not Panik).
The coming week
All that said, tomorrow night the ball will drop and it will be 2018 (even year!), and the holidays, as of Tuesday, will be over. Time for the GMs and agents to get back to work. Something has to happen this next week, right?! Meanwhile, it’s hard to feel my fingers on the keyboard because of this cold stove, so…Lefty out.
Oh, and–Happy New Year!