Small Market Teams Time Free Agent Bids Carefully

If MLB teams want to sign top free agents, they can’t wait much longer than the Winter Meetings. But if they can’t afford to sign elite players, they generally keep waiting. The Rays, for example, will likely see Carl Crawford and Rafael Soriano sign elsewhere, since they are rarely able to bid aggressively on free agents early in the winter.

“We don’t necessarily have the resources ever,”  Rays president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told MLBTR at the GM Meetings in Orlando.

It doesn’t take long to review the early forays into free agency that Friedman has made since taking over baseball operations late in 2005. They signed Akinori Iwamura to a three-year $7.7MM deal in December, 2006, added Troy Percival on a two-year $8MM deal in November, 2007, signed Joe Nelson to a one-year deal in December, 2008 and signed Rafael Soriano to a one-year deal in December, 2009. 

Other than those four signings, the Rays have added all their big league free agents in January or February. History suggests the Rays will be patient this offseason, but Friedman says he isn’t necessarily going to wait the market out.

“It’s something for us that most likely it plays out [late],” Friedman said. “But sometimes there are guys who really want to sign earlier, have that peace of mind and I think we’ll be prepared enough to know which guys to move more aggressively on than others.”

Two offseasons ago, Oliver Perez, Manny Ramirez, Adam Dunn, Dennys Reyes, Juan Cruz and Ty Wigginton were the only free agents to sign multi-year deals between February 1st and the beginning of the season. Last offseason, no free agent signed a multi-year deal between February 1st and the beginning of the season and Johnny Damon, Orlando Hudson, Orlando Cabrera and Kevin Gregg were the only free agents to sign for more than $2MM in guaranteed money after February 1st. 

There is no question that spending slows down later in the winter. It’s partly because there are fewer players to spend on and partly because the players remaining have less leverage. There is a limited number of major league jobs, (especially at DH and closer) so unsigned players don’t have much bargaining power if they want to play. 

That’s why Padres GM Jed Hoyer is likely to wait a couple months before replacing Ryan Webb and Edward Mujica.

“I think frankly we’ll do a lot of our damage late in the offseason as opposed to early, given the market,” Hoyer said. “So we’ll probably wait and we will probably add some relievers, but I have a feeling it’ll be later in the offseason.”

Small market teams like the Padres and Rays wait patiently and spend cautiously because they can’t afford to make Carl Pavano-sized mistakes.

“Our margin for error is significantly less than our competitors',” Friedman said. “And so it obviously makes it that much more challenging.”

The Rays did spend considerably more than usual in 2010, when they opened the season with a $72.8MM payroll. As they prepare to field a less expensive team, the Rays are looking ahead beyond 2011.

“The one mistake we can't make is treat each year like a disparate event and try to be as good as we can that year without being mindful of the future years,” Friedman said. “And so people talk a lot about 2010, that we went all in and I would agree with that from a financial standpoint. We way over-extended ourselves to field the team that we did, but we definitely didn’t from a talent standpoint. We didn’t trade off a lot of guys that are going to be key members of the 2011 and beyond.”

Call it a balancing act, call it a waiting game, the Rays’ approach has earned them a pair of division titles and, back in 2008, even more success.

“We won the American League Championship with a mid 40s payroll,” Friedman said with a grin. “It’s doable [but] it’s obviously very difficult.”

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