Everything about the free-agent market this winter was strange. Months passed with no movement. By the time camps opened, three of the top five free agents remained un-signed. Yu Darvish would have made it four had he not inked a deal with the Chicago Cubs just days before pitchers and catchers reported.
Previous offseasons have seen one or two players last until February, but this was unprecedented. It was as if every general manager suddenly decided the entire process was no longer necessary.
Former Colorado Rockies general manager — and current MLB Network analyst — Dan O’Dowd thinks a number of factors are contributing to the change, one of which involves the dangers of being stuck in the middle.
“[There’s a] rationalization of clubs recognizing that there’s no incentive anymore to be in the middle,” O’Dowd told Yahoo Sports. “The worst place you can be is in the middle.”
When O’Dowd says the middle, he means the teams projected to win between roughly 76-83 games. They aren’t good enough to contend, but they aren’t bad enough to get a high draft pick.
In previous years, you would see at least one of those teams get aggressive in free agency and go for it. Both the Chicago White Sox and San Diego Padres took that approach before the 2015 season. The thinking behind the moves being, “if a few things break our way, we’re a playoff team.”
Neither of those instances worked out, but it isn’t an awful strategy in the era of the second wild card. Last season saw the Minnesota Twins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies all make it to the postseason after surprising turnarounds.
Those rebounds suggest that the “one player away” strategy can work for teams in the middle, but O’Dowd doesn’t think general managers operate that way anymore.
“No one really looks at it as if they’re one player away,” O’Dowd says. “For the bulk of my career, a lot of clubs did.”
What changed? Teams started evaluating players differently.
“I think there’s where analytics — group-thinking, the evaluation of the aging process … I think all of that thought process has come in to where clubs don’t make emotional decisions like they used to,” O’Dowd says.
For general managers, not making an emotional signing is probably good advice. Some of the worst contracts of the past few years were made by teams desperate to make a run at the postseason.
But in a market like the one we saw this winter, O’Dowd believes every club did itself a disservice by taking that approach.
“I’m wondering at times if clubs analytically are almost overthinking some of the opportunities that may be existing right now for them to get better,” he says. “There are clubs, even rebuilding clubs, that are missing an opportunity to take advantage of the market.”
O’Dowd cites Neil Walker as a prime example of that.
“We can pick his deficiencies apart,” O’Dowd says. “But he’s been a 2-plus WAR player for seven years in a row. That’s a pretty good player.”
Walker stayed on the market until March 12 before signing a one-year, $4 million deal with the New York Yankees. At that price, he would have been an asset to any team, but none showed interest.
Walker’s situation is symptomatic of a larger issue. It’s not just teams that no longer want to be stuck in the middle. It’s players too.
“The more I’ve reflected back on the winter,” O’Dowd says. “You really starting seeing a pattern of this developing in 2013-2014, where the middle class in our game — not different from many parts in our society — are getting squeezed right now.”
What O’Dowd says started in 2013-2014 came to head this offseason. Walker signed for $4 million, Jonathan Lucroy and Mike Moustakas signed for $6.5 million. Lance Lynn couldn’t get Charlie Morton money. Alex Cobb is still available.
It’s unclear whether this is the new normal. O’Dowd doesn’t want to jump to that conclusion without more evidence.
Some of O’Dowd’s points suggest baseball has been slowly building in this direction over the past few years. Perhaps that movement accelerated much faster than anyone expected this winter.
There’s a chance this just winds up being a blip on the radar. There’s also a chance this is baseball now. And until something drastically changes, the winters are going to remain long, especially for those in the middle.
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Chris Cwik is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter! Follow @Chris_Cwik