Winter Drags On, With Free Agents Still Waiting by the Phone

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Winter Drags On, With Free Agents Still Waiting by the Phone
From left, Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas at a Royals game last season. All are available as free agents, but none have signed. Credit Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

The Philadelphia Phillies took a highly unusual strategy into this off-season. After losing 96 games and posting a meager .315 on-base percentage, they decided to aggressively pursue a free agent to help them improve.

For three years and $60 million, Carlos Santana, a switch-hitting first baseman, left the Cleveland Indians to join the Phillies. The Phillies made contact on the first day of free agency in November, negotiated seriously at the winter meetings a few weeks later, and held a news conference to introduce Santana on Dec. 20.

“Santana is a player we had admired for a long time,” Matt Klentak, the Phillies’ general manager, said on Friday. “He fit the model of what we’re trying to build in our offense better than just about anybody in baseball with his style of play. He hits for power, takes walks, doesn’t swing at bad pitches, grinds at-bats and passes the baton. As we develop our young core of position players, we felt it was important to supplement our group with a veteran who really excels in those areas.”

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Winter Drags On, With Free Agents Still Waiting by the Phone
Matt Klentak, left, the Phillies’ general manager, seated with Manager Gabe Kapler, right, moved quickly to add the free-agent first baseman Carlos Santana, center, this winter. But a month later, his signing has been the high-water mark of a quiet off-season. Credit Jose F. Moreno/The Philadelphia Inquirer, via Associated Press

A month before spring training camps open, Santana’s deal remains the richest of an alarmingly sluggish free-agent market. Surely, many free agents could fit just as snugly for other teams as Santana does for the Phillies. Yet roughly 130 free agents remain unsigned from a pool of more than 160, and no free agent has signed a deal for longer than three years.

Three decorated Kansas City Royals — Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Lorenzo Cain — are still available. So are J. D. Martinez, the majors’ leader in slugging percentage last season; Yu Darvish, a four-time All-Star; Jake Arrieta, a former Cy Young Award winner; plus other solid starters (Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn, Jason Vargas), a star closer (Greg Holland) and strong everyday players like Logan Morrison, Neil Walker, Jonathan Lucroy, Eduardo Nunez, Carlos Gomez and Jon Jay.

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In other words, you could still form a pretty good team just from the remaining free agents.

“This has been coming for six, seven, eight years,” said Mike Stanton, the former Yankees reliever, who represented the team to the union during the 2002 collective bargaining talks. “Free agency gets pushed back and pushed back because teams know once you get closer to spring training, prices are going to come down. Eventually, players want a team to play for. There’s pressure from home, from friends, all around, to figure out where you’re going to go.”

Stanton, now an analyst for the Houston Astros and for MLB Network Radio, does not like what he sees. He will not use the word collusion — the practice of owners working together to hold down salaries, which happened in the 1980s — but he has noticed a startling lack of urgency in this market. Typically, a team will add an extra year and another million or two in annual salary to separate its offer from the field. But sensible deals like Jay Bruce’s with the Mets, for three years and $39 million, seem to reflect a lack of desperation.

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Winter Drags On, With Free Agents Still Waiting by the Phone
Dodgers pitcher Yu Darvish during the playoffs. Team have snapped up relievers this off-season, but a group of top starters is still waiting. Credit Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“Teams are running it more like a business,” Stanton said. “You always had those loose cannons out there who would overpay for guys, and those owners just aren’t there anymore. You see more young-gun G.M.s who want to show they can put a winning product on the field without spending $250 million.”

With analytics now entrenched in front offices, teams are placing similar values on free agents and becoming increasingly wary of paying players into their mid-to-late 30s. Next year’s dazzling class, with Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and (potentially) Clayton Kershaw, could be more tempting.

Some teams, like the Yankees and the Los Angeles Dodgers, are trying to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold to reset their tax rate — making it a kind of salary cap, something the union has always opposed on principle. Tony Clark, the executive director of the players’ association, declined through a spokesman to comment on the market.

The agent Scott Boras pointed to other elements of the collective bargaining agreement as contributing factors to the slowdown. The system allows the worst teams to spend the most money for amateur talent, with severe penalties for teams that exceed their allotted bonus pools.

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Winter Drags On, With Free Agents Still Waiting by the Phone
The former Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta, above, is represented by the agent Scott Boras, who expressed confidence that teams eventually would engage with his clients. Credit Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

“It has created an incentive to lose, and we now have a process where teams are not seeking competitiveness and therefore they’re not seeking players to be competitive,” Boras said this week, adding later: “To make baseball what it should be — a league of 30 that are incentivized to compete — we need to address these rules to say: You get more money in the draft if you win x number of games, and if you finish below a certain standard, you don’t get a top-five or top-10 pick. That will make the league more entertaining and make baseball better, because we want to wake up every day and know that every team has an incentive to win, not an incentive to lose.”

Several divisions appear to have clear favorites: the Astros, the Indians, the Dodgers and the Washington Nationals all finished first by at least 11 games last season, and all look strong again. Those teams may feel little pressure to spend, and others may believe they are too far away for a free agent to make much difference.

Another factor is Boras, who represents Hosmer, Moustakas, Arrieta, Martinez, Holland and Gomez. He has waited until deep into the off-season before, finding deals worth more than $200 million for Prince Fielder and Max Scherzer in the second half of January. A slow-moving market does not worry him.

“Fans know that talent is there,” Boras said. “They know that without that talent, the probability of the team winning is dramatically altered. So I have always trusted the fact that the credibility of that ethic will serve both the teams and the players.”

Once Boras’s elite clients sign, perhaps, the rest of the market will sort itself out. He believes that so many teams are able to sign top-tier free agents that they are reluctant to move to lesser options until those players are gone.

“This is not about the ability to pay,” Boras said. “It’s about choices.”

For now, teams have mostly chosen to engage on the market for middle relievers. Twelve such pitchers have signed multiyear deals for at least $10 million total. That could reflect the way the game is changing; after a record year for homers, players like Morrison (38 home runs) and Lucas Duda (30) are not as rare as they once were. But with starters going fewer and fewer innings, teams are eager for dependable relievers.

Another unmistakable trend is that tear-downs work. The last three champions — the 2015 Royals, the 2016 Chicago Cubs and the 2017 Astros — each endured a long rebuilding process before their title. Yet Boras objected to the notion that teams could not be blamed for following that playbook.

“I take great issue with that,” he said. “When you’re a professional player and you sign that contract, on your first day, you’re taught that you’re here to win, you’re here to compete, you’re here to be your best. And if they teach that to their young players and they tell the fans they’re here to win, then the entirety of this process in pro sports needs to be about winning — and the structure needs to have immediate change to address this.”

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