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OC Register: This was not baseball’s slowest offseason this decade. So what are we waiting for?


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The baseball buzzards are circling the bleated corpse of Stupid Money for free agents. What was once a golden calf – worshiped like an idol or chided as a foolish front office pursuit, depending on your point of view – is dead.

Thus concludes either the best or the worst offseason this decade.

There is no middle ground of opinion.

Or is there?

With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training this week, I wanted to take stock of the last three-plus months of baseball transactions – and the perceived lack thereof. At some point, front office activity/inactivity became the subject of players’ trash talk, and not the kind of jabs that make the NBA offseason such a delirious sideshow. When the reigning National League Most Valuable Player (Christian Yelich) called out his former boss (ex-Marlins president David Samson) this week for a remark on Twitter that seemed “consistent with anti-player rhetoric,” it was hardly a shock. It was perfectly in line with baseball’s new decorum. It isn’t only the agents who are complaining about the shrinking size of their commissions. Players are on edge, and not just unsigned free agents or salty veterans complaining about a “broken” system.

“I’ve always been interested in the business side of the game,” said Walker Buehler, the Dodgers’ second-year pitcher. “I think I pick (Andrew) Friedman’s mind even more than he wants me to just because I want to know. I’m not trying to be nosy or do anything with the information. I want to get it. And it’s just sad because a lot of guys put a lot of time and effort into playing this game, and the fans want to see the best players. Somebody is going to sign them, but you just hope it’s sooner rather than later.”

Buehler made that remark during the Dodgers’ Fan Fest, on Jan. 26. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the offseason’s prized free agents, remain unsigned.

So what’s in dispute? What’s not in dispute?

This was objectively NOT the slowest offseason

I started with a basic question: was this offseason truly the slowest in recent memory?

To determine the answer, I scraped the transactions pages on MLB’s official website for data going back to the 2010-11 offseason. The site categorizes transactions by month and type: minor league free agent signings, major league free agent signings, trades, and waiver claims. I lumped November, December, January and February together to define the “offseason.”

First, some ground rules. For the purposes of this analysis, I included only major league transactions as listed on MLB.com. If a “player to be named later” was traded during the offseason, it counted as one trade – even if the first part of the trade was announced during the regular season. I also counted players who re-signed with their original team after becoming a free agent, but only if they signed a major league contract. A player swapped for cash counted as a trade. If one player was involved in two or more major league transactions in a single offseason, each transaction was counted individually. Multi-team trades, however, were counted as a single transaction.

OK. Onto the results.

Through Wednesday, there have been a total of 201 transactions (trades, signings and waiver claims) this offseason. That’s ahead of 184 transactions of a year ago, with two full weeks remaining before March. This is, objectively speaking, not the slowest offseason this decade. That title belongs to 2017-18.

Now, let’s look only at free agent transactions. Has their market slowed compared to last year?

Not in terms of quantity. MLB.com lists 99 major league free agent signings since the beginning of November, up from 93 a year ago – again, with the final two weeks of February uncounted. Taken together, however, the last three offseasons are on pace to hold the fewest transactions this decade – assuming the final two weeks of February mimic the first two. That might even be a conservative estimate. Harper, Machado, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Moustakas and other productive free agents could remain unsigned into March.

So what makes this offseason so slow? Is it the trades and waiver claims? Nope. Again, assuming the number of trades and waiver claims in the final two weeks of February mimics the first two weeks, this will be a typical 2010s offseason – 65 trades and 44 waiver claims, compared to the decade-long average of 59 and 43, respectively.

What are we missing?

The changing shape of free agency season

A funny thing happened last March. Two of the winter’s marquee free agents (pitchers Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb) signed contracts worth $40 million or more – when their new teammates had already been in spring training for weeks. That’s historically quite rare. It’s not ideal for the player, his team or even, evidently, a prospective free agent such as Buehler. But it’s becoming the new normal.

March is the new February. February is the new January. January is the new December.

Back to the data. During the 2015-16 offseason, almost half of all players who signed major league free agent contracts (64 of the 129) inked their deals in December. For years, this was the typical pattern: Signings crested in December, then tailed off as the new season approached.

Beginning in 2017-18, the pattern changed dramatically. If we include minor league free agent contracts in our data set, there were actually more signings in January than December each of the last two years. Major league signings alone crested in December, but there appears to be a trickle-down effect. Perhaps some players hoping for major league deals settled for minor league contracts in January rather than allow their free agency to linger into February.

Meanwhile, trades still peaked in December each of the last two years. Perhaps the Winter Meetings have that effect. For the free agent classes, however, the rules have changed.

From afar, the shift seems fairly straightforward. There have been more trades, and fewer free agent signings, each of the last five offseasons (2014-18) compared to the first four (2010-13) this decade.

For players, get ready, because here comes the important part.

Oh right, the money

Though Arrieta and Lynn might have played their cards correctly, it’s not as if holding out guarantees a player more money in free agency. This is where the players’ and agents’ gripes become apparent.

The Associated Press reported in December that the average player’s salary dropped in 2018 for the first time since 2004. This week, Forbes ran some numbers and plotted the trend lines for which players are getting paid the most money. A greater share of MLB’s growing resources are going to players who have not yet reached free agency. Depending on the outcome of Machado’s and Harper’s free agency, that trend could continue.

As a snapshot, consider that Nolan Arenado recently was awarded the highest salary ever given an arbitration-eligible player ($26 million). Meanwhile, the players with the two highest base salaries for 2019, Stephen Strasburg and Mike Trout, are being paid under the terms of extensions they signed with their original teams in March 2014 and May 2016, respectively. They have yet to reach the open market as free agents.

Why are free agents not getting the “stupid money” of years gone by? While agents might blame the increasing influence of analytics in front offices, executives can always counter with data about baseball’s hastening aging curve. In that regard, both sides have a correct answer to stand upon. That’s also why the impending contracts for Machado and Harper, free agents at 26 years old, are being watched so carefully, still. At this point, it really is all about the money.

If you’re a major league free agent – a minority class within professional baseball, albeit a prominent one – your offseason became slower and a lot less lucrative two years ago. If you’re still looking forward to free agency, you have a lot less money to look forward to.

And if you’re a fan, don’t count your team out of anything once pitchers and catchers report to spring training. March is the new February.

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