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Free Agency Slowdown

In the 2016-2017 MLB free agent period, only two of the ten biggest deals were signed as late as 2017.

In the following season’s free agency window, seven of the ten largest contracts weren’t signed until the holidays were over. 

This year, five players (Harper, Machado, Kimbrel, Keuchel, and Pollock) that are extremely likely to land contracts as one of the ten biggest of the year, remain unsigned almost two weeks in to the new year.  

What is it that makes MLB free agency different than other sports, where avid NBA and NFL fans make sure to turn on Twitter notifications for Shams Charania and Adam Schefter, and where some players are inked just a few minutes after midnight on the start of free agency?

Player Specialization

NBA, and especially NFL players, complement their teammates in a more meaningful way than in baseball. Of course baseball is a team sport, but other than the pitcher/catcher combination, the argument of one player complementing another is weaker than in NFL/NBA.  This specialization of complementary pieces lowers the supply for each specific subset of a particular player.  In basketball, there may only be two or three defense-first veteran point guards who also have the capability to run the offensive flow in 20 bench minutes while demanding under $7M AAV.  In football, there may only be two left tackles capable of protecting a franchise quarterback’s blindside.  In baseball, however, team in need of a leadoff style outfielder will have a much larger pool of players, as their list can be bent in different ways to achieve similar results. For example, natural outfielders can be shifted across the outfield easier than a small forward can be shifted to a point guard or a nose tackle to an edge-rusher.  Bryce Harper and Manny Machado have never played the same position, but the argument for signing either player is mostly the same… teams care what they do at the plate, an aspect of the game that does not care one bit what position you play.

Cap matters.

Sure, there are luxury tax penalties, and general wealth constraints in MLB, but without a hard cap there is much more room for a mega-contract.  Twenty of the twenty-three biggest contracts ever signed in the three major U.S. sports are for baseball.  Unlike the large NBA contracts, not all of the MLB deals are in their infant stages.  So much so that six of those contracts are for players who are already retired (Alex Rodriguez, twice).  Like with superstars in the NBA (think LeBron’s “The Decision”), there is no shortage of potential suitors for the highest tier of talent.  Some teams not be able to offer the richest contract in history, but more than a handful of teams will meet privately with the prized player, and internally almost all teams will have an executive discussion.  At the end of the day, the elite players know they’ll receive a mega-contract, so the urge to sign right away is non-existent.

What Else?

Other factors may affect the market for fringe All-Star type players, notably from rejecting a qualifying offer. Any team that signs a player who rejected a qualifying offer, as most who are offered do, must forfeit a high round pick in most cases.

The following reason is likely the biggest factor for the current slowdown in signings.  Recent mega-contracts have put some teams – like the Chicago Cubs – in the unfamiliar territory of being cash-strapped. Usually one of the darling destinations for free agents looking to cash in, the Cubs payroll issues are a direct result of a couple big signings that haven’t gone quite to plan in Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish.  Sure, Heyward can be given credit for his rain-delay locker room speech that may have propelled the Cubs to their first World Series title in more than a century, and Darvish still has the majority of the his contract to make things right, but without those two signings you’d figure the Cubs would be the hands down clubhouse leader for Bryce Harper’s services, that is if they didn’t sign him by this point already.  Similarly, teams like the Yankees and Red Sox, two of the other biggest spenders, are seemingly more content than usual due in fact to already having a few highly-paid stars coupled with their young core, who in turn will demand their bulky contracts.

Featured Image: Flickr/KeithAllison

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Mike Gunther

twitter - @mgunther17

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