Is not signing free agents a matter of simple ‘common sense?’

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The free agent market is ice cold. Big name free agents aren’t coming off the board and the players who are signing are doing so for very low money, often to re-up with the teams they played for last year. Is something fishy going on, or is it just a case of savvy front offices imposing some sanity on a once-over-heated market independently from one another?

Sports Illustrated offers some insight:

Owners claim they are only exercising common sense . . . [an MLB official] pointed out, among other things, that close to $50 million is being paid out to players no longer performing, that players on long-term contracts spend more time on the disabled list, and that performance progressively falls off in each year of a multiyear pact. “I just told [clubs] what I’ve been telling them all along, that they were crazy and running themselves into bankruptcy,” says [the MLB official]. It also has not gone unnoticed that the more successful clubs in recent years have not resorted to signing free agents.

Is that compelling to you? Believable? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Before you answer, let me note that all of that material from above comes from the December 9, 1985 issue of Sports Illustrated, in which the free agent being unable to find a lucrative deal was Kirk Gibson and the MLB official whose name I bracketed over was then-chairman of MLB’s Player Relations Committee Lee MacPhail, who died several years ago. As we all know, the excuses offered at the time were bogus and there was, in fact, an active collusion conspiracy going on, orchestrated from MLB’s head office itself.

I’m not saying that collusion is happening now, mind you. I have no evidence of that and I would not lodge such a serious accusation without evidence. I am merely offering a history lesson. I am reminding you that the sorts of statements we’ve been hearing of late about how owners are only exercising common sense and how rationality, not a conspiracy, dictates not signing free agents are nothing new. They can be offered in a genuine fashion and may be now, but they were the disingenuous answers that were given back in a time when collusion was afoot.

Which is to say that, if your favorite team is not actively trying to make itself better, don’t just settle for the pat and broad “we’re just exercising common sense” answer or references to bad contracts handed out in the past or the time aging players stay on the disabled list. Based on that “the more successful clubs in recent years have not resorted to signing free agents” comment, don’t even buy in to the “hey, look what the Cubs and Astros did with their rebuilds” line.

Sure, it may be true, but Major League Baseball clubs have not earned the benefit of the doubt on such matters. They offered all of that stuff in disingenuous fashion in the past, and while it may be genuine now, we are under no obligation to believe clubs when they say so.

MLB free agent watch: Ohtani leads possible 2023-24 class

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CHICAGO – The number will follow Shohei Ohtani until it is over. No, not Ohtani’s home runs or strikeouts or any of his magnificent numbers from the field. Nothing like that.

It’s all about how much. As in how much will his next contract be worth.

Ohtani is among several players going into their final seasons before they are eligible for free agency. There is still time for signatures and press conferences before opening day, but history shows a new contract becomes less likely once the real games begin.

There is no real precedent for placing a value on Ohtani’s remarkable skills, especially after baseball’s epic offseason spending spree. And that doesn’t factor in the potential business opportunities that go along with the majors’ only truly global star.

Ohtani hit .273 with 34 homers and 95 RBIs last season in his fifth year with the Los Angeles Angels. The 2021 AL MVP also went 15-9 with a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts on the mound.

He prepared for this season by leading Japan to the World Baseball Classic championship, striking out fellow Angels star Mike Trout for the final out in a 3-2 victory over the United States in the final.

Ohtani, who turns 29 in July, could set multiple records with his next contract, likely in the neighborhood of a $45 million average annual value and quite possibly reaching $500 million in total.

If the Angels drop out of contention in the rough-and-tumble AL West, Ohtani likely becomes the top name on the trade market this summer. If the Angels are in the mix for the playoffs, the pressure builds on the team to get something done before possibly losing Ohtani in free agency for nothing more than a compensatory draft pick.

So yeah, definitely high stakes with Ohtani and the Angels.

Here is a closer look at five more players eligible for free agency after this season:

RHP Aaron Nola, PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Nola, who turns 30 in June, went 11-13 with a 3.25 ERA in 32 starts for Philadelphia last year. He also had a career-best 235 strikeouts in 205 innings for the NL champions.

Nola was selected by the Phillies with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft. There were extension talks during spring training, but it didn’t work out.

“We are very open-minded to trying to sign him at the end of the season,” President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski said. “We’re hopeful that he’ll remain a Phillie for a long time.”

3B Matt Chapman, TORONTO BLUE JAYS

Chapman hit 36 homers and drove in 91 runs for Oakland in 2019. He hasn’t been able to duplicate that production, but the three-time Gold Glover finished with 27 homers and 76 RBIs in 155 games last year in his first season with Toronto.

Chapman turns 30 on April 28. Long one of the game’s top fielding third basemen, he is represented by Scott Boras, who generally takes his clients to free agency.

OF TEOSCAR HERNÁNDEZ, SEATTLE MARINERS

Hernández was acquired in a November trade with Toronto. He hit .267 with 25 homers and 77 RBIs in his final year with the Blue Jays. He was terrific in 2021, batting .296 with 32 homers, 116 RBIs and a .870 OPS.

The change of scenery could help the 30-year-old Hernández set himself up for a big payday. He is a .357 hitter with three homers and seven RBIs in 16 games at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park.

OF Ian Happ, CHICAGO CUBS

The switch-hitting Happ is coming off perhaps his best big league season, setting career highs with a .271 batting average, 72 RBIs and 42 doubles in 158 games. He also won his first Gold Glove and made the NL All-Star team for the first time.

Chicago had struggled to re-sign its own players in recent years, but it agreed to a $35 million, three-year contract with infielder Nico Hoerner on Monday. The 28-year-old Happ, a first-round pick in the 2015 amateur draft, is on the executive subcommittee for the players’ union.

LHP JULIO URÍAS, LOS ANGELES DODGERS

Urías, who turns 27 in August, likely will have plenty of suitors if he reaches free agency. He went 17-7 with an NL-low 2.16 ERA in 31 starts for the NL West champions in 2022, finishing third in NL Cy Young Award balloting. That’s after he went 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA in the previous season.

Urías also is a Boras client, but the Dodgers have one of the majors’ biggest payrolls. Los Angeles also could make a run at Ohtani, which could factor into its discussions with Urías’ camp.