The slow offseason, illustrated

Bill Baer
NBC Sports

We’re just a few hours from entering 2018 and many very talented free agents remain unsigned, like J.D. Martinez and Jake Arrieta. This is quite an abnormal development. To illustrate this, I took the top-10 free agents as listed by MLB Trade Rumors each year and marked their signing dates on my brilliantly-created calendars with an X, assembled into the slideshow below.

In 2010, eight of the top-10 free agents signed by the new year. In 2011, seven had signed by the new year. 2012, six. 2013, six. 2014, eight. 2015, five. 2016, seven. This year, only two have signed — Carlos Santana and Wade Davis. That’s a stark departure from previous years. My inclusion of Santana in the top-10 is debatable as Masahiro Tanaka was originally in MLBTR’s top-10, but he chose not to opt out of his contract with the Yankees. So, I replaced him with Santana. One could’ve argued someone like Alex Cobb merited going into the top-10 over Santana, which would have reduced that number to one instead of two.

Click to view slideshow.

Here’s the data in table form if you want to fool around with it yourself:

Season

Rank

Name

Position

Date

Years

Amount

Team

2011

6

Victor Martinez

1B/DH

Nov. 26, 2010

4

$50,000,000

Tigers

2011

5

Adam Dunn

1B/DH

Dec. 3, 2010

4

$56,000,000

White Sox

2011

4

Jayson Werth

OF

Dec. 5, 2010

7

$126,000,000

Nationals

2011

8

Mariano Rivera

RP

Dec. 7, 2010

2

$30,000,000

Yankees

2011

10

Derek Jeter

SS

Dec. 7, 2010

3

$51,000,000

Yankees

2011

9

Paul Konerko

1B/DH

Dec. 8, 2010

3

$37,500,000

White Sox

2011

2

Carl Crawford

OF

Dec. 11, 2010

7

$142,000,000

Red Sox

2011

1

Cliff Lee

SP

Dec. 15, 2010

5

$120,000,000

Phillies

2011

3

Adrian Beltre

3B

Jan. 5, 2011

5

$80,000,000

Rangers

2011

7

Rafael Soriano

RP

Jan. 18, 2011

3

$35,000,000

Yankees

2012

10

Jonathan Papelbon

RP

Nov. 14, 2011

4

$50,000,000

Phillies

2012

3

Jose Reyes

SS

Dec. 7, 2011

6

$106,000,000

Marlins

2012

1

Albert Pujols

1B/DH

Dec. 8, 2011

10

$246,841,811

Angels

2012

4

C.J. Wilson

SP

Dec. 8, 2011

5

$77,500,000

Angels

2012

8

Aramis Ramirez

3B

Dec. 13, 2011

3

$36,000,000

Brewers

2012

7

Jimmy Rollins

SS

Dec. 19, 2011

3

$38,000,000

Phillies

2012

9

Carlos Beltran

OF/DH

Dec. 23, 2011

2

$26,000,000

Cardinals

2012

5

Yu Darvish

SP

Jan. 18, 2012

6

$56,000,000

Rangers

2012

2

Prince Fielder

1B/DH

Jan. 26, 2012

9

$214,000,000

Tigers

2012

6

Edwin Jackson

SP

Feb. 2, 2012

1

$11,000,000

Nationals

2013

9

Hiroki Kuroda

SP

Nov. 20, 2012

1

$15,000,000

Yankees

2013

5

Melvin Upton

OF

Nov. 29, 2012

5

$75,000,000

Braves

2013

8

Dan Haren

SP

Dec. 7, 2012

1

$13,000,000

Nationals

2013

1

Zack Greinke

SP

Dec. 10, 2012

6

$147,000,000

Dodgers

2013

2

Josh Hamilton

OF/DH

Dec. 15, 2012

5

$125,000,000

Angels

2013

4

Anibal Sanchez

SP

Dec. 17, 2012

5

$80,000,000

Tigers

2013

7

Edwin Jackson

SP

Jan. 2, 2013

4

$52,000,000

Cubs

2013

6

Nick Swisher

1B/DH

Jan. 3, 2013

4

$56,000,000

Indians

2013

3

Michael Bourn

OF

Feb. 15, 2013

4

$48,000,000

Indians

2013

10

Kyle Lohse

SP

March 25, 2013

3

$33,000,000

Brewers

2014

4

Brian McCann

C

Dec. 3, 2013

5

$85,000,000

Yankees

2014

2

Jacoby Ellsbury

OF

Dec. 7, 2013

7

$153,000,000

Yankees

2014

8

Hiroki Kuroda

SP

Dec. 7, 2013

1

$16,000,000

Yankees

2014

1

Robinson Cano

2B

Dec. 12, 2013

10

$240,000,000

Mariners

2014

10

Mike Napoli

SP

Dec. 12, 2013

2

$32,000,000

Red Sox

2014

3

Shin-Soo Choo

OF

Dec. 27, 2013

7

$130,000,000

Rangers

2014

5

Masahiro Tanaka

SP

Jan. 22, 2014

7

$155,000,000

Yankees

2014

7

Matt Garza

SP

Jan. 26, 2014

4

$50,000,000

Brewers

2014

9

A.J. Burnett

SP

Feb. 16, 2014

1

$16,000,000

Phillies

2014

6

Ervin Santana

SP

March 12, 2014

1

$14,100,000

Braves

2015

6

Victor Martinez

1B/DH

Nov. 14, 2014

4

$68,000,000

Tigers

2015

8

Russell Martin

C

Nov. 18, 2014

5

$82,000,000

Blue Jays

2015

4

Hanley Ramirez

SS

Nov. 25, 2014

4

$88,000,000

Red Sox

2015

5

Pablo Sandoval

3B/1B

Nov. 25, 2014

5

$95,000,000

Red Sox

2015

9

Nelson Cruz

OF/DH

Dec. 4, 2014

4

$58,000,000

Mariners

2015

10

Yasmany Tomas

OF/3B

Dec. 9, 2014

6

$68,500,000

Diamondbacks

2015

2

Jon Lester

SP

Dec. 15, 2014

6

$155,000,000

Cubs

2015

7

Melky Cabrera

OF

Dec. 16, 2014

3

$42,000,000

White Sox

2015

1

Max Scherzer

SP

Jan. 21, 2015

7

$210,000,000

Nationals

2015

3

James Shields

SP

Feb. 11, 2015

4

$75,000,000

Padres

2016

7

Jordan Zimmermann

SP

Nov. 30, 2015

5

$110,000,000

Tigers

2016

1

David Price

SP

Dec. 4, 2015

7

$217,000,000

Red Sox

2016

3

Zack Greinke

SP

Dec. 8, 2015

6

$206,500,000

Diamondbacks

2016

2

Jason Heyward

OF

Dec. 15, 2015

8

$184,000,000

Cubs

2016

8

Johnny Cueto

SP

Dec. 16, 2015

6

$130,000,000

Giants

2016

9

Alex Gordon

OF

Jan. 6, 2016

4

$72,000,000

Royals

2016

4

Justin Upton

OF

Jan. 20, 2016

6

$132,750,000

Tigers

2016

5

Chris Davis

1B/DH

Jan. 21, 2016

7

$161,000,000

Orioles

2016

6

Yoenis Cespedes

OF

Jan. 26, 2016

3

$75,000,000

Mets

2016

10

Ian Desmond

SS

Feb. 29, 2016

1

$8,000,000

Rangers

2017

7

Jeremy Hellickson

SP

Nov. 14, 2016

1

$17,200,000

Phillies

2017

1

Yoenis Cespedes

OF

Nov. 30, 2016

4

$110,000,000

Mets

2017

6

Dexter Fowler

OF

Dec. 9, 2016

5

$82,500,000

Cardinals

2017

9

Ian Desmond

SS/OF

Dec. 13, 2016

5

$70,000,000

Rockies

2017

3

Aroldis Chapman

RP

Dec. 15, 2016

5

$86,000,000

Yankees

2017

4

Justin Turner

3B

Dec. 23, 2016

4

$64,000,000

Dodgers

2017

10

Ivan Nova

SP

Dec. 27, 2016

3

$26,000,000

Pirates

2017

2

Edwin Encarnacion

1B/DH

Jan. 5, 2017

3

$60,000,000

Indians

2017

5

Kenley Jansen

RP

Jan. 10, 2017

5

$80,000,000

Dodgers

2017

8

Mark Trumbo

1B/OF/DH

Jan. 20, 2017

3

$37,500,000

Orioles

2018

1

Yu Darvish

SP

2018

2

J.D. Martinez

OF

2018

3

Eric Hosmer

1B

2018

4

Jake Arrieta

SP

2018

10

Carlos Santana

1B

Dec. 20, 2017

3

$60,000,000

Phillies

2018

5

Mike Moustakas

3B

2018

6

Lorenzo Cain

OF

2018

7

Wade Davis

RP

Dec. 29, 2017

3

$52,000,000

Rockies

2018

8

Lance Lynn

SP

2018

9

Greg Holland

RP

Last week, I wrote about how the competitive balance tax is affecting free agent signings. The CBT essentially functions as a soft salary cap because teams don’t want to pay the penalty. The Associated Press reported that the Dodgers were hit with a $36.2 million luxury tax, followed by the Yankees at $15.7 million. That’s a lot of money, especially for the Dodgers. Earlier this month, the Dodgers made a trade with the Braves to re-acquire Matt Kemp in exchange for a handful of players, allowing them to spread their obligations over two seasons instead of one. The CBT, with the threshold now at $197 million, is very clearly a concern for wealthier teams now.

Another factor is the rate of success signing top-10 free agents. A cursory glance at the list above reveals a lot of misses and most teams are understandably hesitant to repeat those mistakes. The reasons for that are manyfold, but a big one is that teams are now signing their talented prospects to contract extensions well before they become eligible for free agency. As a result, players become free agents later in their careers, past their primes. Teams signing free agents are taking on more post-prime years than they were before. Players that do hit free agency before or during their prime are either not as talented as their peers that signed extensions or reached the major leagues at a young age (like Bryce Harper if and when he becomes a free agent).

Earlier this month, Indians president of baseball operations Chris Antonetti also said that, as a result of every organization now having implemented an analytics department, teams are starting to value players very similarly. That is true just as much of free agents as it is about players involved in trades. If Teams A, B, C, and D all value Free Agent Guy at a maximum of $70 million over three years, then he isn’t likely to get his asking price of five years and $125 million because those teams aren’t as likely to get into a bidding war against each other.

These factors — the CBT, history, and analytics — have created a chasm between what players want and what teams are willing to pay. That’s why we’re seeing a majority of the top free agents remain teamless going into the new year. For team owners and executives, this is a great development. For players, agents, and people who care about labor issues, this isn’t heading in a good direction and must be addressed when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated. The players’ share of league revenues continues to decline.

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