Top Of The First
Historically, the bulk of available free agents are signed by Christmas, but this year the market has been slow to develop. Thirteen of the top twenty-two free agents have yet to sign new contracts, as compared to only two at this time last year. There are a number of reasons as to why there are still so many available players. How will that impact the rest of the winter and the start of the 2016 season?
Who’s Spending This Year?
The Cubs have taken advantage of a wide-open market so far, signing free agents John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward to the tune of $272 million dollars. The Red Sox signed David Price. The Giants inked Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto. Jordan Zimmermann took $110M to sign with the Tigers. Of course, Zack Greinke signed with Arizona at an AAV that reflects more than a third of the Diamondbacks’ entire 2015 payroll.
For the Cubs, they struck quickly thanks to an unexpected bump in payroll and speculation that the free agent market following the 2016 season will be mediocre at best, serving to drive prices way up for the few good players available. Basically, Chicago was able to shop for both 2016 and 2017 at 2016 values.
Some of the traditional big spenders — both New York and both Los Angeles teams — have been relatively quiet this year. Teams that spent big last year — the Padres, the Marlins and the White Sox — have kept their checkbooks closed. Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Milwaukee and Atlanta are in full tear-down/rebuild mode.
Oakland doesn’t spend, period, and the remaining mid-market teams are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for prices to come down. Could we be witnessing league-wide supply-side deflation in the marketplace? The last time that occurred in major league baseball, front offices and owners were accused of collusion and market oligopoly.
There’s Just Too Few Dollars Chasing Too Many Players
The following free-agents, their ranking in this year’s class, and their projected contracts (via MLBTR) are still available:
4. Justin Upton 7/$147M
5. Chris Davis 6/$144M
6. Yoenis Cespedes 6/$140M
9. Alex Gordon 5/$105M
10. Ian Desmond 5/$80M
12. Mike Leake 5/$80M
13. Wie-Yin Chen 5/$80M
16. Dexter Fowler 4/$60M
17. Daniel Murphy 4/$56M
18. Scott Kazmir 4/$52M
19. Ian Kennedy 4/$52M
20. Yovani Gallardo 4/$52M
22. Howie Kendrick 4/$50M
Those thirteen players represent over one billion dollars in total projected salary. The list does not include Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda, who will likely command a $60M contract plus a $20M posting fee. Nor does it include CF Denard Span, who MLBTR predicted to get a 3/$39M deal with the Cubs. The problem that I see in the 2015-16 offseason market is that there aren’t a billion cumulative dollars left to be spent.
Because Yeonis Cespedes, Mike Leake and Scott Kazmir are not linked to draft pick compensation, I am surprised that all are still available, though Leake is allegedly close to a new deal. I have heard little if any news regarding Cespedes. Kazmir has had a few nibbles but I don’t believe he is close to signing anywhere.
What Does It Mean Going Forward?
When supply exceeds demand, prices inevitably drop. But this isn’t an ordinary supply/demand issue. There are far too few dollars chasing far too many goods and services this year. Baseball is not at a state of hyper-deflation yet, but is that a possible outcome leading up to Spring Training?
San Francisco is still probably buying one more player, likely an outfielder. They could drop another nine-figure contract on someone like Upton or Cespedes, or they could get Dexter Fowler at a much lower price. St. Louis looks like they will add just a starting pitcher, probably Mike Leake.
Which teams are buying after that? Hard to say.
Teams with more payroll maneuverability like St. Louis, both Los Angeles teams, or the White Sox may benefit from a recessed marketplace. Houston looks like they are purposely waiting for potential bargains. Kansas City may end up getting OF Alex Gordon at “their price.” The same may be said for Baltimore and Chris Davis. It looks like the Yankees are determined to sit out again this year no matter the discount so they are not a factor. I don’t see the Angels spending “just to spend” either. Broaching or exceeding luxury tax penalties has a way of limiting funds.
Suffice to say, some free agents may have to accept one-year deals this year and re-enter free agency next year when the competition for dollars and will be far less aggressive. Some teams will inevitably swoop in on those opportunities to get a discounted player plus possible draft pick compensation in 2017. This is where Denard Span, Austin Jackson or Ian Kennedy may come into play for the Cubs.
In hindsight, accepting the qualifying offer this year probably benefited Colby Rasmus and Matt Weiters. I’m sure other players would like to have the opportunity to reconsider that decision. This is an odd year, with so many players available and this year’s supply/demand disparity may dictate how both teams and players approach the ridiculous free agency class of 2018.
Scouting Ian Happ
Going into the 2015 draft, second baseman Ian Happ was considered the 16th-best available player. The Cubs took the University of Cincinnati graduate with the ninth overall pick. Being a polished college hitter, he got the high-floor/medium ceiling “reach” designation much like Kyle Schwarber did the year before.
And like Schwarber, all Happ does is hit and hit and hit. He offers above-average bat speed and a very good contact rate. The outfielder was drafted as a second baseman and comes equipped with an excellent batting eye, which will help him post good walk rates. Happ is a switch-hitter, but offers more loft and leverage as a lefty at this point of his development. The power is fringy, but plays up if he can stick at the keystone.
Happ’s future hit tool grades in the 60-65 range and his future power grades out at a reasonable 50. He’s not very athletic, and he’s choppy at best defensively. Happ profiles favorably as a 21-year old version of Ben Zobrist.
Fact, Fiction, Truth, Or Rumor
St. Louis may finally foray into free agency by signing SP Mike Leake. Leake has been very good against teams in the Central Division, but I still don’t think he is worthy of a five-year deal. The Cardinals would prefer to go less than five years on a starting pitcher if possible.
How much would the New York Mets’ starting rotation be worth in free agency today? If you said “one billion dollars” you’d probably be pretty close.
Bucs Dugout says the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offseason has been somewhat perplexing. It still isn’t the disaster that the Dodgers offseason has been to this point. Be forewarned, that Pirates think-piece is incredibly long. Still a great read though.
I stumbled across an ESPN Magazine from September and found a fun story about a Texas baseball ranch that teaches young pitchers to throw 90 MPH-plus. Some of the drills — like pitching with a four-pound ball or elevated, one-legged squats— are positively amazing. Fascinating stuff. Ron Wolforth, founder of the camp, is partly responsible for resurrecting Scott Kazmir’s career.
Michael Cerami of Bleacher Nation put together a decent analysis of yesterday’s interview between Theo Epstein and The Score’s Bruce Levine and Jordan Bernfield.
Bottom Of The Ninth
The landscape of baseball has changed so much in the past decade that I spend as much research time on sites like Spotrac and Investopedia (this link is a GREAT baseball article, for what it’s worth) as I do on sites like Fangraphs and Baseball Reference. There is a ton of quantifiable data available for statistical and financial analysis for projecting roster construction. I often wonder if my love of analytics has replaced the joy I experienced just going to baseball games as a kid. That being said, I am at least fan enough to still get chills when I walk up the stairs and into the general seating area at Wrigley Field.
Pitchers and catchers report in 55 days and we still haven’t experienced a traditional Chicago winter yet. It’s a great time to be a Cubs fan.