Well, you’ve made it past the Christmas frenzy and are limping your way to New Year’s Day. Congratulations. I hope you still have some cash left in your wallets or purses. I’m a father of three. I don’t.
Theoretically, baseball’s general managers still have some money to spend. Or at least the dozens of free agents available on the open market are hoping that’s the case.
One of the things that has really changed in my years of covering baseball is how long the free-agent season lasts nowadays.
When I first started covering the sport, the sense was that all the top free agents needed to be signed by Christmas. It was primarily a personal thing. Most free agents are in their late 20s or early 30s – and that means most are family men. They, along with their wives and kids, wanted to know where their families were going to be as soon as possible. So, having some normalcy by Christmas was a major goal. I remember that being a huge priority for Miguel Tejada, who signed with the Orioles a week before Christmas in 2003.
That’s not the case anymore. At some point in the mid-2000s, it seemed like the big-name free agents started signing later and later, a concept that super-agent Scott Boras seemed to champion. He allowed the market to “percolate” before pitting a couple teams against each other in January.
The past few years, a few of the most coveted free agents have inked new contracts by December 25. But plenty of free agents were still jobless going into the new year – and beyond.
It’s a concept that Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette has monitored expertly. We all know about his bargain-shopping in January and February. This year, he should be able to get a door-buster special or two if he is so inclined (and has the funds for it).
At the beginning of the free-agent season, I wrote about 10 players I thought would be the best fits for the Orioles. Seven of them remain unsigned. The piece was written before catcher Welington Castillo (pictured above) was non-tendered by the Arizona Diamondbacks, or he would have been on the list. And, ultimately, the Orioles signed him earlier this month.
That means two of the remaining seven should be scratched off now, since they are both catchers. But five – outfielders Angel Pagan, Michael Saunders and Michael Bourn, designated hitter Pedro Alvarez and reliever Boone Logan – are still out there for the taking.
And so is a host of mediocre starting pitchers that the Orioles likely will avoid, and plenty of outfielder/DH types that present varying fits for the club, including Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, Jose Bautista, Rajai Davis, Colby Rasmus and Chris Carter.
Consider that nine of the Top 10 free agents ranked by mlbtraderumors.com have found jobs (Trumbo, slated as the eighth best, is still weighing offers). Seven of the next 15 still haven’t signed, however. And soon there will be a new year to fill out on those big checks.
So why the even more obvious delay this year?
One, this just isn’t a particularly inspiring free-agent class, so teams have taken their time picking the right fit or fits.
Two, this is the last year of the qualifying offer as we know it (clubs will no longer lose first-rounders when they sign a player with a qualifying offer starting in the 2017 offseason). So, it may be even more of a burden to some players this winter than it has been in the past. Trumbo and Bautista are the two free agents with qualifying offers that are still on the open market.
Three, the free-agent season got off to a bit of a late start because teams and agents were waiting for a new collective bargaining agreement to be ratified.
Fourth, teams like the Orioles have proven that if you’re patient, you can land a quality player on a relatively expensive short-term deal. And a lot of clubs seem to be approaching free agency that way. In fact, rarely is free agency seen as a salve these days. Instead, it’s viewed, in many cases, as a last resort if trades and vacancies filled from within don’t work.
That’s certainly how the Orioles viewed free agency this year. They went in looking for a catcher and an outfielder and potentially a DH. They got their catcher, Castillo, on a one-year deal (with a player option) and are now concentrating on an outfielder. And if a DH type falls into the shopping basket, they’ll accept that, too.
But Duquette – and plenty of other GMs – aren’t maxing out credit cards this year before Christmas. They are waiting.
Some dominoes could fall this week, which is traditionally a slow one in Major League Baseball. But I’d expect a chunk of free agents to sign within the next three weeks. And then more stragglers to find jobs in late January or early February.
The free-agent-signing timeline really has changed in the past few years for various reasons.
Unlike when I started, there’s no longer any panic if the right players aren’t under a GM’s tree on Christmas morning.
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