Spring Training Games Begin With Key MLB Free Agents Still Unsigned

Spring training games are underway in both Florida and Arizona, and there are still a top-flight group of MLB free agents who have yet to sign new deals.

Scott Boras clients—pitchers Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery, third baseman Matt Chapman and designated hitter J.D. Martinez—are still out there as March approaches. So are pitchers Mike Clevinger and Michael Lorenzen, along with first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford.

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They’re all looking for jobs, some of them for big dollars, and the clock is ticking. The free agents were a topic of discussion Tuesday when all the Cactus League managers and GMs gathered to talk to the media at the Glendale Civic Center.

The regular season opens early with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres playing each other in Seoul, South Korea, on March 20-21. The other 28 teams open on March 28.

“Every free-agent class has a life of its own,” Perry Minasian, the general manager of the Los Angeles Angels, said. “This one is slow, that’s for sure.”

It’s not as if this year’s market has been wholly unproductive. MLB teams thus far have spent $2.6 billion on 118 free agents, Spotrac tabulated, but there are hundreds of players still without jobs. In comparison, last year teams spent $3.9 billion on 151 players.

There have been other recent seasons when the markets have also been slow to develop.

For example, when Bryce Harper finally signed a 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019, Boras didn’t come to terms on the deal until March 2, well into spring training. That came only a couple weeks after Manny Machado signed a 10-year, $300 million pact with the Padres. In 2018, Martinez didn’t sign his five-year, $110 million contract with the Boston Red Sox until Feb. 26.

This offseason, one would have thought the floodgates might have opened after the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto in December to contracts worth $1.25 billion combined over the next 12 seasons, but that didn’t happen.

Snell, the reigning NL Cy Young Award winner this past season with the Padres, remains on the market.

“As far as Blake is concerned, he can help any team,” Padres GM A.J. Preller said. “He’s incredibly talented. I mean, each year’s different. Every situation’s different for each free agent and takes them down different paths. Obviously, he hasn’t gotten what he’s looking for yet. When he finds something he likes, he’s going to do it.”

Snell has been tied to the New York Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Angels, Seattle Mariners and even the Padres. Chapman, who cut his teeth with the Oakland A’s, could still land across the Bay in San Francisco. Montgomery could return to the World Series-winning Texas Rangers or even sign back with the Yankees. Bellinger might return to the Chicago Cubs.

The Rangers spent their money last year and are not intent on dipping into the market again this year, Texas general manager Chris Young said. They have veteran high-priced pitchers Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom rehabbing—Scherzer after offseason back surgery and deGrom after last season’s Tommy John operation on his right elbow. Neither are expected back until May at the earliest, Texas manager Bruce Bochy said.

Young is well aware that the Rangers’ payroll is seventh in the league and $215.7 million for luxury tax purposes, and that deGrom ($37 million) and Scherzer ($12.5 million) are a nearly $50 million chunk of it. That’s why Montgomery has yet to sign.

“We can’t be engaged every year,” Young said. “This year, we’ve been very focused and targeted. We felt like we improved our team in some areas of need. The nice thing is that we have a returning core of players in place.”

Other teams rarely engage, creating a two-tiered system. David Forst of the Oakland A’s and Matt Arnold of the Milwaukee Brewers, both GMs of small-market clubs, shrugged when asked if they’re concerned about the state of the free-agent market.

“We’re the Brewers, so not really,” Arnold said.

“We obviously rarely participate at that level of the free-agent market,” Forst said.

Meanwhile, the defending NL champion Arizona Diamondbacks, whose payroll is 16th in the league at $130.7 million, have engaged, trying to improve a team through trades and signings that lost in five games to the Rangers in the World Series.

The D-backs, like the Padres, lost their annual $60 million regional television deal last year in the Bally bankruptcy and are trying to find local public funding for renovations or a replacement of 26-year-old Chase Field.

MLB made up 80% of the team’s lost TV rights fee last year, but that’s not the case this year—although MLB is controlling the production and distribution of their local product again this season.

Unlike the Padres, who traded Juan Soto to the New York Yankees and let Snell, closer Josh Hader and other pitchers Nick Martinez, Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo go to free agency, the D-backs spent $136.5 million on new free agent contracts. They shored up their starting pitching behind Zac Gallen and Merrill Kelly by signing veteran Eduardo Rodriguez to a four-year, $80 million deal; re-signed outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. for three years, $42 million; and added hitters Joc Pederson for a year at $12.5 million and Randal Grichuk for one year, $2 million.

D-backs GM Mike Hazen said the current market wasn’t difficult to navigate for his club’s needs.

“We didn’t run into a ton of trouble,” he said. “We made a number of transactions early in the offseason and got some deals done. As far as the current state of the market is concerned, I’m not smart enough to know what goes on in the greater world of free agents.”

Evidently, neither is anybody else.

(This story has been updated in the second paragraph to remove Cody Bellinger’s name, since Bellinger has signed a three-year, $80 million deal with the Chicago Cubs, according to multiple reports.)

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