One Thing MLB Could Do to Make Its Offseason as Exciting as the NBA's

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 10, 2018

These are boring yet increasingly unnerving times for Yu Darvish and other top MLB free agents.
These are boring yet increasingly unnerving times for Yu Darvish and other top MLB free agents.Matt Slocum/Associated Press

Not much can be done to make baseball like basketball. They're both sports, of course, but they're otherwise about as akin as spiders and spider monkeys.

Perhaps it's not too much to ask, though, that the between-seasons business of Major League Baseball be made to more closely resemble that of the National Basketball Association.

Even with baseball season in full swing last summer and fall, it was impossible to ignore what CBSSports.com's Matt Moore termed "the wildest offseason in NBA history." From Dwight Howard to Jimmy Butler to Chris Paul to Paul George to Kyrie Irving to Carmelo Anthony, there were blockbuster trades galore. Meanwhile, Gordon Hayward left the Utah Jazz for a huge deal from the Boston Celtics, while Stephen Curry and Blake Griffin secured even huger deals from their respective teams.

That's a heck of an offseason. And if there's a way to make it look like an even hecker of an offseason, it's to compare it to this winter's hot-stove season.

The trade market has been just fine, thank you. The New York Yankees scored Giancarlo Stanton, the reigning National League MVP, in a blockbuster with the Miami Marlins. Evan Longoria, Marcell Ozuna, Dee Gordon, Ian Kinsler and Stephen Piscotty were also dealt.

The free-agent market, however, has been a Darko Milicic-level bust.

Not counting the Los Angeles Angels' modest investment in two-way Japanese wunderkind Shohei Ohtani, a search on MLB Trade Rumors' transaction tracker returned only 45 contracts worth a grand total of $577 million. These figures lag well behind where the previous five offseasons were at this point:

OffseasonFA DealsFA Dollars (Millions)
2017-201845$577.0
2016-201762$1,179.0
2015-201686$1,798.9
2014-201572$1,352.2
2013-201492$1,549.9
2012-201387$1,245.7

Note: Through Jan. 8; counts major league contracts of at least one year.

Obviously, it's not over yet. Still out there are Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Lorenzo Cain, Mike Moustakas, Alex Cobb and Greg Holland. The first four are candidates for nine-figure pacts. The others could get multiyear deals worth eight figures annually.

But with spring training just a month away, a ticking clock is stripping these players of leverage to get the contracts of their dreams. Players in the middle and lower tiers of the free-agent class will also start feeling the spring training squeeze.

Free-agent spending peaked at $3.8 billion in the 2015-2016 offseason, according to Spotrac. Last winter, spending plummeted to $1.4 billion. From the look of things, there will be another step down this winter.

For those who are wondering, the list of reasons why this is happening is about as long as the time between Pedro Baez's pitches.

Like last year, it's just as easy to notice who's not a free agent this year. Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Paul Goldschmidt would have been available if they hadn't signed extensions. Alas, they did. The result is a second straight hot-stove season with a decidedly weak free-agent class.

In stark contrast to this is what's looming next year. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Charlie Blackmon, Brian Dozier, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and Andrew Miller are slated to be free agents. Clayton Kershaw could be too if he exercises his opt-out.

In light of all this, patience might be the best solution for "fixing" the MLB offseason.

In light of other factors, however, it might not be so simple.

Though the MLB Players Association scored a few victories—such as a less grueling schedule, All-Star Game and Home Run Derby bonuses and less severe penalties attached to free agents who reject qualifying offers—in the latest collective bargaining agreement, it also signed off on harsher penalties for teams that go over the luxury tax.

That's proving to be a bullet to its members' collective feet this winter. Big spenders like the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers are striving to get under the $197 million luxury tax threshold. Others are giving it a wide berth.

Yes, the Yankees are due to be under the luxury tax even after they added Giancarlo Stanton.
Yes, the Yankees are due to be under the luxury tax even after they added Giancarlo Stanton.Willie J. Allen Jr./Associated Press

Elsewhere, there's nothing to force rebuilders and small-market teams to spend. So no matter where they turn, free agents are finding owners who, despite being billionaires, resemble the deadbeat dad statue from The Simpsons, smiling sheepishly with empty pockets in hand and saying, "I just don't have it."

Another issue that's notably gotten attention from Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports and Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic is the lack of diverse thought within MLB front offices. The obsession with statistical analysis and projection has effectively created a hive mind that churns out cookie-cutter player valuations.

There's also a common opinion of and common strategy for free agency: It stinks, and the best thing to do is wait it out.

"Teams are smarter. They know how terrible free agency is," one general manager told Passan.

Said another GM of his approach to the free-agent market: "Of course I'm waiting. Because they're going to worry they won't get a job, and I'm going to get a discount."

The strategy of waiting out free agents isn't making its debut this offseason. Indeed, it's evolving. Per Travis Sawchik of FanGraphs, the number of free-agent signings during February (i.e., the first month of spring training) rose in each of the last three years. Yet another rise should occur this year.

According to Rosenthal, the situation is so disconcerting for players and agents that some are grumbling about collusion. That's a stretch, but there's no denying the free-agent freeze is a bad look for a league that, according to Maury Brown of Forbes, produced $10 billion in revenue last year. And for players, there's fear that the damage will have lasting power.

"The profits for clubs this offseason will be staggering. The impact on future markets will be mind-boggling," one agent told Rosenthal. "Of those players who sign, how many will sign below market, thus creating a new lower value for comparable players in future markets?"

It's easy to brainstorm fixes that would even the negotiating balance between owners and players. A softer salary cap would help. With or without that, a payroll floor would also help. Perhaps best of all would be to cut clubs' control of players down from six years. That would allow players to enter free agency sooner, thereby allowing them to maximize their earning power during their prime years.

But since these may be so many pies in the sky, a potentially agreeable alternative is to take a cue from the NBA for the sake of disincentivizing the free-agent waiting game.

The NBA doesn't jump headlong into the business portion of its offseason. The Finals conclude in mid-June, and then the league takes a couple of weeks to do its draft and hand out awards. Then there's a weeklong moratorium in which players and teams can negotiate but can't sign contracts.

The light doesn't turn green until July 6, about two-and-a-half months before training camps open. Rather than try to wait out players, teams engage in a frenzy of signings and trades right out of the gate.

In MLB, players become free agents the morning after the World Series concludes. There's then a five-day window for teams to negotiate with their free agents. After that, they're let out to wander the free-agent wilds with three-and-a-half months until spring training.

In theory, the extra time can be justified under the reality that baseball rosters are larger than basketball rosters. Hypothetically, more time and effort are needed to fill them.

But in reality, teams are putting just as much time and effort into tending to their bottom lines as they are to filling out their rosters. While not the reason, the sheer length of baseball's offseason is a reason they can get away with this. There just isn't a sense of urgency.

If the start of free agency were pushed back to, say, Dec. 1, November could turn into a month for awards, new coaching and front office hires and negotiations and handshake agreements between teams and pending free agents that could help set market prices before the doors even open. Once the doors do open, the clock would start ticking on teams to fill needs. Better hurry before the best players are gone.

For the average baseball fan, this would be a great deal more exciting than a long, slow, mostly empty crawl to spring training. If it were to also prove successful in transferring negotiating power from teams to players, the benefit for the latter would be obvious.

The benefit for the former could emerge in the long run in the form of ongoing labor peace. Since that hardly seems guaranteed at present, that would surely be an acceptable compromise.

If nothing else, it's something worth thinking about. It's not as if there's anything else going on, after all.

    

Free-agent data courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors.

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