The month of January isn’t typically a big month for free agent signings, but this year, it might almost have to be. An uncharacteristic number of big-name free agents are still available, including Justin Upton, Chris Davis, Yoenis Cespedes, Alex Gordon, Ian Desmond, Wei-Yin Chen, Dexter Fowler, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo and Howie Kendrick, among others, remain available. By this point in the year, key free agents have usually already signed, but this winter, many teams will be doing their offseason shopping well after Christmas.
Too see the difference between this year and previous winters, here’s a look at key January transactions from the last five seasons, via MLBTR’s Transaction Tracker. As we’ll see, January frequently contains a bit of drama, and top free agents do sometimes wait to sign. None of the last five offseasons have seen the kind of free agent movement that seems likely in the coming weeks, however.
- 2015: The only significant free agent move in January was indeed a big one: the Nationals’ agreement with Max Scherzer to a seven-year, $210MM deal on the 19th. Beyond that, the largest deal was the Astros’ $8MM pact with Colby Rasmus. James Shields ($75MM) and Francisco Rodriguez ($13MM) were the only key free agents who signed in February.
- 2014: This was the recent offseason with the most post-New Year’s activity. The Yankees signed Masahiro Tanaka to a $155MM contract in late January, and the Brewers got Matt Garza on a four-year, $50MM deal at around the same time. In addition, James Loney agreed to a three-year, $21MM pact with the Rays, who also signed Grant Balfour for two years and $12MM. A number of key free agent signings (Ubaldo Jimenez, Bronson Arroyo, A.J. Burnett, Fernando Rodney, Nelson Cruz) were delayed until February, while Ervin Santana (whose market, like that of Cruz, was depressed by the qualifying offer) did not sign until March. Two other qualifying offer free agents, Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales, did not sign until after the season had begun.
- 2013: Nick Swisher and Edwin Jackson both signed right after New Year’s, each getting four-year deals in excess of $50MM. Later that month, Rafael Soriano and Adam LaRoche each got two-year deals in the $20MM-$30MM range. Two free agents with qualifying offers attached, Michael Bourn and Kyle Lohse, signed later.
- 2012: The Tigers signed Prince Fielder to a huge nine-year, $214MM contract in late January. The other key free agent deals that month were those of Coco Crisp and Hiroki Kuroda, both of them comparatively minimal in value. In early February, Jackson agreed to a one-year, $11MM deal with the Nationals.
- 2011: Soon after the new year, Adrian Beltre agreed to a five-year, $80MM deal with Texas. Later in the month, Soriano got three years and $35MM from the Yankees. The only significant February signing was Vladimir Guerrero’s one-year, $8MM deal with the Orioles.
An obvious common denominator with many of these signings was that a number of key players were represented by Scott Boras, including Scherzer, Fielder, Beltre, Bourn, Jackson, Lohse, Soriano, Rodriguez, Drew and Morales. As is widely known, Boras operates on his own timeline, and his clients’ frequent late signings reflect that. For this year, that’s worth keeping in mind for Davis, Chen and Kennedy.
The other obvious common denominator is the qualifying offer, which had obvious effects on free agents like Bourn, Lohse, Santana, Cruz, Drew and Morales. The qualifying offer could end up having a significant effect on the markets of a few current free agents, like Kennedy.
Still, those two factors do not explain the logjam of free agents currently on the market. Most of them (Upton, Cespedes, Gordon, Desmond and so on) are not Boras clients. And many free agents who might have been most affected by the qualifying offer (Marco Estrada, Rasmus, Matt Wieters, Brett Anderson) either already signed or accepted their QOs.
In any case, this year’s free agent market figures to be considerably busier in January (or even later) than it typically is. In a recent column, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal explored reasons why the market has been so slow. Some usual big spenders, like the Yankees and Angels, have been relatively quiet on the free agent market. In addition, the trade market has perhaps been a factor — recent deals involving Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, Andrelton Simmons, Shelby Miller and Ken Giles, for example, have shown that the trade market has had plenty of good talent available. As MLBTR’s Jeff Todd implied last month, too, the signing of one of the many numerous bats available via free agency could lead to a run on the rest. In the meantime, though, a number of stars still need homes, so expect plenty of activity in the coming month.