SAN DIEGO — For the past couple of years the baseball labor market has taken a major hit.
Salaries, for the first time in, well, almost forever, actually went down over the past year despite skyrocketing revenue. Some top free agents have gone unsigned until after the season has begun and merely good free agents have either settled for small deals or, in some cases, no deals at all. A good third of the teams have been tanking, content to not spend money and to not field competitive teams. The situation has been so dire that there has been open talk of a work stoppage when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires following the 2021 season.
But in the past couple of weeks something weird has happened: teams have begun to sign some players to some pretty good contracts.
Before the Winter Meetings even began, Zack Wheeler, Yasmani Grandal, Cole Hamels, José Abreu, Jake Odorizzi, Mike Moustakas, Michael Pineda, and a handful of lesser players signed deals. Today Stephen Strasburg agreed to a deal with the Washington Nationals for $245 million. That probably means that Gerrit Cole is going to get paid some serious scratch. Maybe as much as $300 million.
So, what do all those signings mean for the ice cold labor market we’ve come to know and loathe? It’s certainly not bad, that’s for sure.
It’s been many a Winters Meeting since there has been this much in the way of transaction news and rumors with at least a little meat on their bones, so just in terms of buzz and stuff, things have been looking up.
More objectively speaking, the deals which have been signed thus far are skewing slightly higher than expectations. Tim Dierkes of MLB Trade Rumors told me today that the 15 signees for which both his website and FanGraphs did projections have received, collectively, 41 guaranteed years and $718.85 million. MLB Trade Rumors predicted beforehand they’d get 40 years and $623 million and FanGraphs predicted they’d get 37/$561 million. Again: good news.
At the same time, it’s a good idea not to get too far over one’s skis when it comes to declaring the labor market healthy again.
Seeing some big contracts handed out — especially in December — is nice, but just as a cool day in June does not negate the fact that global temperatures are rising, some players inking some big contracts does not mean all is good in free agency. After all, there were two $300 million deals handed out by teams last year — to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — yet the overall market was terrible. Those two deals happened to come very late in the offseason, which made them seem less-than-spectacular in some way. If they had happened in December, however, the overall numbers would’ve gone unchanged. The outliers and isolated data points are not necessarily indicative of larger trends, no matter when they appear.
Good early news notwithstanding, it would be premature to make any pronouncements about things trending up for the players. Why?
- The top players, like Strasburg and Cole, are always going to get paid. Especially when one of them, Strasburg, chooses to re-sign with the only team he’s ever known, coming off of a World Series MVP Award, which tends to cost a re-signing team a premium. Let’s see how the much larger group of middle class players do;
- Let’s also see if teams that can normally be counted on to spend money — like the Red Sox and Cubs — fulfill the rumors that they, instead, plan to slash payroll and trade off stars, thus taking themselves and their trade partners out of the free agent market. If Mookie Betts and Kris Bryant are dealt for payroll reasons, there could be big ramifications which flow from it;
- Let’s see just which teams are going to tank this winter and how thoroughly they intend to tank. Because, these early signings aside, there are still an appalling number of teams who are not all that interested in competing and have no one forcing them to spend money on players.
I’m happy for Stephen Strasburg. I’m happy for Zack Wheeler. I’m anticipating considerable happiness for Gerrit Cole. But you can’t count free agent chickens before they hatch. As such, let’s all meet back in February before we say that, for the players, happy days are here again.