This sort of column should be reserved for October, or maybe early November at the latest. But with about 90 of the XX-B (the top kind) MLB free agents remaining on the board, this has been the slowest – and most mysterious – market in the history of the game.
The Chicago Cubs’ wily Yu Darvish signing (more years, not fewer, was the key!) hasn’t yet inspired a run on the top starting pitchers, with the other three very top starters remaining free agents. The top two position players also remain out there.
One agent said the other night that things remain “slow as molasses.” Another said no new calls came in the first two days after Darvish agreed to become a Cub.
Yet another said, bluntly, “Free agency is dead.”
It may not be quite that bad, but the game has changed.
Teams seem almost afraid to take the plunge.
There have been many theories as to why owners/GMs don’t seem quite as focused on winning as they have in recent years (caution, analytics, some recent contracts that haven’t worked such as Chris Davis, David Price, Jason Heyward and Jacoby Ellsbury, the recent success stories of abject rebuilders — I don’t like the word “tanking” — like the Nationals, Cubs and Astros or possibly the mega stars available on next year’s market), but I suspect the new CBA has something to do with this. The $197 million luxury tax threshold is too low (one owner even complained to me recently about this!), and the draft pick attachment to free agency is still inhibiting teams.
Union people have to be regretting not just accepting MLB’s first offer of the worldwide draft and absolutely no compensation attached to top free agents. One owner told me that was the union’s biggest mistake, opining that “the worldwide draft never would have been implemented anyway!” (Yes, he said it with an exclamation point).
It’s hard to prove the union erred in not taking the first offer, of course, but there are signs teams still are worried about losing draft picks. Coincidentally or not, it is worth noting that two of the three teams to have signed a player who had a qualifying offer attached and thus lost draft choices are teams that will be getting them back for losing other free agents (presuming they sign eventually, that is.) The Rockies signed Wade Davis, but Greg Holland will sign elsewhere, restoring their lost pick, and the Cubs signed Darvish but obviously Davis signed, and Jake Arrieta will, too (eventually).
Can it be a coincidence that almost all the other teams are avoiding top free agents to this point?
This market has been the hardest to predict in history, but we’ll take a stab at where the remaining stars will wind up. (And don’t try this at home. It probably won’t even go that well here).
1. Eric Hosmer. The Padres and Royals by all appearances have been the two leading contenders for months, without a change. Of course, it’s possible someone else gets in eventually (Red Sox?), but for now, we will assume the longtime Royals star will wind up with one of those two prime teams. Without knowing exactly where each team stands, and just assuming they are close with their financial offers, the guess here is he might judge that San Diego is closer to getting to the World Series. Prediction: Padres. Others: Royals, Red Sox (?).
2. Jake Arrieta. The Brewers keep signing pitchers, but other than Jhoulys Chacin, the others are more in the category of maybes. Their rotation just doesn’t stack up the rival Cubs – not even close. And since they have pocketed oodles of cash over the last two years (their payroll was a sport-low $63 million in 2017), there still should be plenty of money left to bolster a rotation that outperformed last year but will be without Jimmy Nelson at least at the start of the year. Prediction: Brewers. Others: Nationals, Phillies, Cardinals, Twins.
3. J.D. Martinez. The staredown with the Red Sox has been going on for weeks. And they certainly have a chance. But taking Martinez at his word, he’d rather play the outfield than DH and he absolutely loved Arizona, where he advised his childhood friend Alex Avila to sign and where they have hired his hitting guru Robert Van Scoyoc. As was reported on FanRag this week, they are working on creative ways to keep him. Prediction: Diamondbacks. Others: Red Sox, Blue Jays (long shot).
4. Mike Moustakas. Third base is a tricky spot. Justin Turner, an even better (though older) player in my estimation, had only one offer last year, from his own Dodgers team. Once the Giants and Angels turned elsewhere, this one became a mystery. The Royals like Moustakas and may bring him back (but it might be more likely for Moustakas to stay should Hosmer go elsewhere), the Yankees like Moustakas very much and would consider it (but they might need to move money) and the Braves have thought about it (but seem to prefer a one-year deal). Prediction: Royals. Others: Yankees, Braves.
5. Alex Cobb. The Twins need to do something about their rotation, right? They loved Yu Darvish but never really seemed to be in the ballgame. But perhaps a slightly more affordable player might work for them. Prediction: Twins. Others: Brewers, Orioles, Phillies, Yankees, Mets.
6. Greg Holland. The Rockies seemed like a pretty good matchup, but now it looks like a guessing game. The Astros, Angels, Cardinals and Cubs all make some sense. Prediction: Cubs. Others: Cardinals, Angels, Astros, Phillies.
7. Lance Lynn. He is an outstanding pitcher whose name hasn’t been connected to anyone at this point. It isn’t clear why that is, as he has a 122 ERA plus. Maybe the draft choice is really an impediment here. If so, maybe he goes back to his old team? Prediction: Cardinals. Others: Mets, Phillies, Brewers, Twins.
8. Jonathan Lucroy. He’s another really good player who seems to have flown under the radar this winter. The Rockies liked him but seem to have moved on with another old friend, Chris Iannetta. Is it too crazy to think his old team, the Brewers, could make a play? Prediction: Astros. Others: Rockies, Twins, Brewers.
9. Tony Watson. The Giants are targeting Watson, as Robert Murray of FanRag reported. Others are in as well. Prediction: Giants. Others: Phillies, Red Sox.