The month of January isn’t always a big month for free agent signings, but it can be at times. In 2016, in particular, a wide variety of high-profile free agents had yet to sign when the calendar flipped. As things stand entering 2017, players like Mark Trumbo, Jose Bautista, Jason Hammel, Matt Wieters, Michael Saunders, Mike Napoli, Greg Holland, Travis Wood, and Neftali Feliz all remain available despite entering the winter listed among the top 25 players on MLBTR’s annual ranking of the top 50 free agents. Other unsigned players include Brandon Moss, Luis Valbuena, Nick Hundley, Chase Utley, Rajai Davis, Angel Pagan, Adam Lind, Pedro Alvarez, Kurt Suzuki, and Colby Rasmus, along with a variety of relievers (e.g., Joe Blanton, Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla, Fernando Salas, Boone Logan, Jerry Blevins, Drew Storen).
To see the difference between this year and previous winters, here’s a look at key January transactions from the last six offseasons, via MLBTR’s Transaction Tracker. As we’ll see, January frequently contains at least some drama, but the 2015-16 open-market period still seems like an outlier (which likely occurred due to the sheer volume of high-end talent that was available).
- 2016: There was a lot of meat left on the free-agent bone this time last year. Plenty of money ended up changing hands over the month of January, with Chris Davis landing seven years and $161MM from the Orioles while Justin Upton got six years and $132.75MM plus an opt-out from the Tigers. Big, multi-year deals were also awarded to Wei-Yin Chen ($80MM over five years with opt-out), Yoenis Cespedes ($75MM over three years with opt-out), Alex Gordon ($72MM over four years), and Ian Kennedy ($70MM over five years). Less significant, but still-substantial guarantees were struck by Denard Span ($31MM), Gerardo Parra ($27.5MM), Howie Kendrick ($20MM), Antonio Bastardo ($12MM), and Doug Fister ($7MM).
- 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 other 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 Davis, Scherzer, Fielder, Beltre, Chen, Kennedy, Bourn, Jackson, Lohse, Span, 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 Wieters and Holland.
The other obvious common denominator is the qualifying offer, which had obvious effects on free agents like Ian Desmond, Kendrick, Bourn, Lohse, Santana, Cruz, Drew and Morales. Trumbo and Bautista are the only two remaining QO decliners on this year’s market, but it’s not hard to see how the draft compensation may continue to impact their markets.
This time around, negotiations over the new CBA may well have played a role in the timing at the top of the market. That likely slowed things down for Edwin Encarnacion, who is now one of several notable, veteran bats who have signed — helping to explain why so many lumbering sluggers still remain available. With three top-end closers and a variety of other relievers also chasing big money this winter, it’s perhaps not surprising to see a fair bit of bullpen help still floating around, too.
This post is adapted and updated from a post by Charlie Wilmoth that was originally published on January 2, 2016.