As the end of 2015 approaches, it seems an opportune time to take stock of the free agent market. Plenty of contracts have met or exceeded already-lofty expectations. But it’s also rather notable that a variety of high-end players — including five of MLBTR’s ten highest-rated free agents coming into the winter and multiple players predicted to earn over $100MM — remain available.
Expectations have long been that this year’s market would break records in terms of total spend, and the quality and volume of free agents still unsigned continues to suggest that will occur. There’s no question that a huge amount of earning potential remains available at this point in the current market. Above-average to premium position players include Justin Upton, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis, Alex Gordon, Ian Desmond, Dexter Fowler, Howie Kendrick, and Denard Span. There are still quality arms out there, as well: Wei-Yin Chen, Kenta Maeda, Yovani Gallardo, Ian Kennedy, and Scott Kazmir among them.
Every one of those players placed among MLBTR’s top thirty available free agents. All but Span was predicted to land a $50MM+ contract. And we attributed over $1B in total earning capacity to those thirteen players alone.
But with the free agent market dragging along slowly, especially for position players, ESPN.com’s Buster Olney wonders whether it’s time for some of those players to consider pillow contracts. He says that Upton, Desmond, and Kazmir are among those who ought to begin thinking about taking one-year deals. And Olney suggests that some — he names Gallardo and Kennedy — might even need to prepare for the possibility of a holdout into the regular season.
From my perspective, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising to see a few top-fifty free agents settle for a chance to re-enter the market with as part of a weaker 2016-17 class. But there’s also little reason to give up on a bigger contract at this stage, and good reason to believe that many or most will still reach or exceed expectations.
Olney is right to note that next year’s much-less-appealing slate of free agents will provide some incentive for players to settle for one-year arrangements. But the less exciting market to come also impacts teams, who have some added incentive to lock into a player at an area of need if the future replacement options don’t look promising.
I’d suggest, too, that a delay in the market shouldn’t necessarily be interpreted as an indication that money has dried up. We’ve seen before that funding can still available well into the spring. Back in that boom class of 2013-14, for example, over $440MM was spent after the calendar turned to the near year (not including players who waited until mid-season, but factoring in the total outlay needed for the Yankees to land Masahiro Tanaka).
And this year’s remaining free agent class is much more impressive than the group whose signing timeline was put on hold by the great Tanaka chase. It should be paid as such, even if each individual won’t max out their earning potential.
We’ve already heard, for instance, that at least Davis, Gordon, and Kazmir have fielded significant offers, and are apparently holding out for something better. And it’s not at all uncommon for big cash to be committed late. We’ve seen nine-figure deals go to players like Tanaka, Max Scherzer, and Prince Fielder after the new year. And there are numerous examples of lengthy contracts with $10MM+ AAVs that have been handed out in January, February, or March — including James Shields, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza, Nick Swisher, and Michael Bourn.
It’s probably worth bearing in mind the lesson of Ervin Santana, whose market fell apart after he apparently pushed too hard for a bigger contract. But his case also demonstrates that the downside risk isn’t so bad, either, as he struck a $15MM contract for his single season and then got over $50MM the next year upon re-entering the market.
While it’s true that there’s more supply left this time around than is usually the case, that could simply be a reflection of the outstanding class of players on the open market and the numerous options at some positions. The market for power bats, in particular, has several players and teams involved who may be waiting for a first mover to break the present standstill.
In some ways, moreover, the early spending this year suggests that there will still be plenty of cash to go around over the next few months. Nobody anticipated the Diamondbacks committing over $200MM to one player. Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist both went to a team (the Cubs) that didn’t necessarily seem in clear need of adding them. The trickle-down effect is that the other clubs with interest in those kinds of players remain in the market.
At this point, it’s also worth noting, only eleven clubs have even committed $20MM to a single player. The Dodgers, Angels, Rangers, Astros, White Sox, Yankees, and Mets are not among them. And only five teams have awarded contracts of $50MM or more, with the Cubs and Giants each giving two. So there’s probably more capacity — if not also willingness — to spend.
However the market develops, it seems fair to say that we could be in for an unusually active spring in terms of free agency. As camp begins to approach and extension season moves into focus, there’s still plenty of potential for intrigue.
My own expectation is that the market will still pay out over $2.5B in total commitments by the time it’s all said and done. In addition to the thirteen players discussed above, there are numerous other members of the open market who seem likely to sign guaranteed deals. What do you think?