Bock’s Score: A Free Agency Bear Market

Somebody once asked Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby what he did during the winter. Hornsby’s reply was classic. “I stare out the window,’’ he said, “and wait for spring.’’

Mid-winter’s only redeeming feature is that in a couple of weeks it will be February and time for spring training. Somebody might want to wake up the free agent market from its slumber before then.

To say that signings have been slow would be an understatement. Three weeks into a bleak January, signings of significant free agents have been few and far between. There is plenty of talent out there but clubs have not been in any hurry to pull out checkbooks.

So J.D. Martinez, who hit four home runs in one game last season, is still unsigned. The same is true of Kansas City’s talented trio of Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. Anybody need a pitcher? How about Jake Arrieta, a former Cy Young Award winner, or Yu Darvish? Looking for Infield help? There’s Neil Walker, Todd Frazier, and Jose Reyes.

The list has other appealing options but nobody seems in much of a hurry to sign talent. And when teams do, they have been limiting deals to three years. Outfielder Jay Bruce wanted five but the Mets got him to lower his demand to three. Slugger Carlos Santana probably could have waited for a better deal but accepted three years from Philadelphia, which needed a marquee signing in the worst way. Santana’s $60 million deal was the most expensive.

Instead of signing expensive free agents, teams have been dumping expensive contracts. Miami unloaded second baseman Dee Gordon, a former batting champion, on Seattle and slugger Giancarlo Stanton, who hit 59 home runs last season, on the New York Yankees. Pittsburgh shipped outfielder Andrew McCutcheon to San Francisco and pitcher Gerrit Cole to Houston. In all four deals, the Marlins and Pirates received cheaper, younger players.

Now somebody with a devious mind might think there is free agent collusion going on here. Major League teams have been down that path before and it cost them dearly with a $280 million in fines following three years from 1985-87 of diminished free agent signings.

That left a bad taste and free agency returned in full flower in the years after that. So are they at their old strategy again? Maybe, or maybe they are just keeping their piggy banks full as they anticipate next winter’s selection of free agents.

Look at the list: Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, Craig Kimbrel, Brian Dozier and, if he chooses to opt out of his current contract, Clayton Kershaw.

And that’s just for starters. It’s enough to make a general manager’s mouth water. That level of talent may be the biggest reason teams are not rushing to spend on the current crop of free agents. They are a talented group, no doubt, but they are a step below the players who will be on the market in 2019.

So major league pocketbooks remain closed rather tightly and budgets maintained carefully. The payroll savings could be substantial but it is unlikely that they will be passed on to the fans.That means beer will still be $10.50 a cup and hot dogs $12. That’s just the world of baseball economics.

About the Author

Hal Bock

Hal Bock is a contributor with NY Sports Day. He has covered sports for 40 years at The Associated Press including 30 World Series, 30 Super Bowls and 11 Olympics. He is the author of 14 books including most recently The Last Chicago Cubs Dynasty and Banned Baseball's Blacklist of All-Stars and Also-Rans. He has written scores of magazine articles and served as Journalist In Residence at Long Island University's Brooklyn campus where he also served on the selection committee for the George Polk Awards.

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