As teams cut costs, baseball’s pool of free agents is about to get deeper

Jim Salisbury
·4 min read

As teams cut costs, baseball’s pool of free agents is about to get deeper originally appeared on NBC Sports Philadelphia

Baseball’s free-agent market, as expected, has been slow developing, but things could pick up later this week as the deadline for tendering 2021 contracts to players who are eligible for salary arbitration arrives at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

To this point in the offseason, significant action on the free-agent market has been limited to the Atlanta Braves, who struck early with the signings of free-agent starting pitchers Drew Smyly (one year, $11 million) and Charlie Morton (one year, $15 million.) The Kansas City Royals reportedly have a deal with Mike Minor, another starting pitcher.

Other than that, teams have mostly been playing the waiting game — for a couple of reasons.

First, there is the economic uncertainty in the game. Major League Baseball teams sustained combined losses of about $3 billion during the pandemic-impacted 2020 season, according to industry sources. That’s roughly $100 million per team. Locally, the Phillies lost “significantly” more than $100 million, according to statements made by managing partner John Middleton. A report by the Associated Press pegged the number at about $145 million, which is not even in the same stratosphere as the $2 billion figure that was thrown around in a report out of New York several days ago.

Losses in revenue have caused every team in baseball to cut costs through pay cuts, furloughs, layoffs or the elimination of positions. The Phillies shrunk their workforce by 80. The Chicago Cubs shrunk theirs by 100. The Oakland A’s laid off 20 percent of their workforce; the San Francisco Giants 10 percent of theirs. The World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers announced layoffs earlier this month. The Red Sox, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Astros and others all had layoffs. The Mets cut 25 positions in June.

The cost-cutting will be felt in player payrolls all around the game. 

That’s why Wednesday looms as a big day and why the free-agent market has been mostly slow developing. The pool of free agents is not yet complete and it won’t be until Wednesday night when teams all over the game are expected to cut costs by setting free dozens of arbitration-eligible players. The sudden increase in free agents could liven up the market, especially for teams looking for bargains – and that’s just about everybody this winter.

Need starting pitching? Steven Matz and Jose Ureña are among those who might be out there. (Update: Urena was subsequently designated for assignment.) Maybe Vince Velasquez, too.

After five seasons with the Phillies, the inconsistent Velasquez, with a price tag that could reach $4 million in 2021, may have reached his expiration date in Philadelphia. Or maybe the Phillies, who are very thin in pitching depth, keep him around. We’ll find out soon.

The Phillies need to remake their bullpen. They will no doubt be watching the list of relievers who get non-tendered.

Phillies ownership has said re-signing J.T. Realmuto is a priority, but revenue losses in 2020 and the possibility of more in 2021 make that situation unclear. If Realmuto walks, the Phillies will need a catcher. It’s possible that the Yankees will non-tender Gary Sanchez, whose offense declined to the level of his defense in 2021. Would the Phils take a chance on a rebound if Sanchez was set free? Would Joe Girardi, Sanchez’ former manager in New York, really want one?

Curt Casali is another catcher to watch. He always got high marks from Cincinnati Reds pitchers and the Phils, of course, just hired former Reds assistant pitching coach Caleb Cotham to be their head guy. A reunion would make sense if Casali becomes a free agent.

Earlier this offseason, the Cleveland Indians parted with Brad Hand, one of the game’s elite relievers, because his $10 million salary for 2021 was going to be too rich for their budget. Hand’s becoming a free agent was a good indicator of the game’s uncertain financial situation and an example of the belt-tightening that is going on around the industry. Another indicator could be percolating in Chicago, where the retrenching Cubs have pondered whether to cut ties with Kris Bryant and/or Kyle Schwarber because of their rising salaries. Bryant and Schwarber were both core members of the Cubs’ World Series-winning team in 2016 and will play at age 28 and 29, respectively, in 2021.

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