MLB Free-Agency Nightmare Creates Opportunity for Surprise Teams to Strike Gold

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 9, 2018

New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, left, and Mets owner Jeff Wilpon, right, watch as newly-signed Mets' third baseman Todd Frazier dons a Mets cap and jersey during a press conference, Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2018, at CitiField in New York. Frazier reportedly signed a two-year deal, finalized on Wednesday. The contract calls for Frazier to be paid $8 million this year and $9 million in 2019. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Already this winter the New York Mets have benefited from baseball's free-agent slowdown. They brought in Jay Bruce and Todd Frazier, quality players signed for what in other years would have qualified as bargain prices. They added Anthony Swarzak to their bullpen and took a flier on Adrian Gonzalez.

"Some opportunities arose for us that probably would not have been expected right after the end of the World Series," general manager Sandy Alderson told reporters, including James Wagner of the New York Times.

The opportunities are still out there. You can call this the winter of the slowdown, the stare down or the deep freeze, and you can debate from now until Opening Day whether players and agents have been unrealistic or whether owners are engaged in group-think (which isn't against the rules) or full-on collusion (which is).

But if you're an owner who wants to win—there still have to be a few of those out there, right?—you should see this as an opportunity. If you're a fan who hasn't been blinded by too much talk about "process," you should be pushing your team to grab that opportunity.

Alderson's Mets could double down by going after one of the top remaining starting pitchers on the market, instead of settling for a rotation-filler. The Milwaukee Brewers, who already seized opportunities by signing Lorenzo Cain and trading for Christian Yelich, could make the National League Central really interesting by adding a top starter such as Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb.

"The way [owner Mark Attanasio] operates is that when there's justification for an investment, he's open to it," Brewers GM David Stearns told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

There's justification right now. Those pitchers are going to sign sometime. So is J.D. Martinez, the outfielder who hit 45 home runs in just 119 games in 2017. And Mike Moustakas, whose 38 homers were a franchise record in a tough ballpark in Kansas City.

It's fine for players to suggest they'll sit out until they get the offer they want. Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports wrote Thursday that Martinez "is telling folks he's prepared to remain jobless until he is paid what he is worth." But why not be the team that tests his resolve with an offer well short of his reported $200 million goal but more significant than what he has seen so far?

How long is J.D. Martinez willing to wait to get what he thinks he deserves? A smart owner would make an offer that tests his resolve.
How long is J.D. Martinez willing to wait to get what he thinks he deserves? A smart owner would make an offer that tests his resolve.Sarah Sachs/Arizona Diamondbacks/Getty Images

It's true that not every big free-agent contract works out. It's true that owners who spend big risk being ridiculed for throwing their money away. That's always been true. Bill Madden once wrote in the New York Daily News of the "mind-boggling reality and stupefying stupidity" of a $210 million contract the Washington Nationals handed out.

Ted Lerner was "One Dumb Owner," as Madden liked to dub anyone who spent his own money trying to win.

That contract, by the way, was the one Max Scherzer signed in January 2015. Since signing it, Scherzer has a 2.76 ERA, with back-to-back Cy Young Awards.

One Dumb Owner? Sounds more like an owner who took advantage when the market presented an opportunity.

Mike Ilitch did the same thing with his Detroit Tigers when he signed Pudge Rodriguez in February 2004 and Magglio Ordonez in February 2005. There wasn't a general free-agent freeze those winters, but for various reasons Rodriguez and Ordonez went through the winter without finding a fair offer. Eventually, agent Scott Boras convinced Ilitch these were opportunities that could change his franchise.

They did. The Tigers went to the World Series in 2006. Attendances boomed, and for a decade the Tigers were one of the best teams in the game.

It's fashionable these days to say you're building by developing young players. If you rely on analytics and win some games without spending big you're called smart.

Everyone wants to be called smart, right?

It's fashionable to point to the collective bargaining agreement and say you want to re-set the luxury tax to take advantage of better free-agent classes in future years. But, as Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal tweeted last week:

Here's the other reality: The team that spent the most money last year was the Los Angeles Dodgers ($244 million, according to USA Today), and they went to the World Series. The team that spent the second most, the New York Yankees ($209 million), fell one win short of going to the World Series. Two of the other four teams that spent enough to pay luxury tax (the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox) were division champions.

Not every team has the revenues to justify that kind of spending. Not every team has a strong enough core to justify adding a big free agent right now.

But in a winter where the Yankees and Dodgers have been among the teams holding back, and where the Cubs and Red Sox so far haven't been willing to flex their financial might, there's room for another team to step up and seize on the opportunity available.

There's a chance for One Smart Owner to step up and say "winning matters."

            

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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