For many years, free agency was where MLB players got rich. But it was also where teams got better.
Players dreamed of the big contract. Owners, general managers and fans dreamed of a big star who would carry them to a championship.
So, what happens now?
What happens when players no longer trust the big money will be there? What happens when one after another, a potential free agent avoids that risk by signing a contract extension to stay where he is?
It isn't a big problem for the stars. Mike Trout still got rich when he signed a 12-year, $430 million deal to stay with the Los Angeles Angels. But somewhere, there was a team—namely the Philadelphia Phillies—that lost out on its top 2021 free-agent target nearly two years before the market even opened.
The Colorado Rockies gave Nolan Arenado an eight-year, $260 million extension last month. But what about the fans who had already penciled him into their 2020 New York Yankees lineups?
Take Jacob deGrom off your wish list as well, because he signed a five-year, $137.5 million extension with the New York Mets on Tuesday. Scratch Justin Verlander (two years, $66 million with the Houston Astros), Chris Sale (five years, $145 million with the Boston Red Sox) and Paul Goldschmidt (five years, $130 million with the St. Louis Cardinals), too.
Contract extensions have always been a feature of the final days of spring training, as many players and teams prefer not to negotiate into the season. But we have never seen a spring like this one.
After the deGrom and Kyle Hendricks (four years, $55.595 million with the Chicago Cubs) deals became public Tuesday, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic noted teams and players had agreed to more than $1.75 billion in extensions since the end of last season.
Some teams clearly felt pressure to lock up stars. Meanwhile, some players clearly looked at the slow-moving free-agent markets the last two winters and decided that path no longer means guaranteed riches, especially for players in their 30s.
Free agency isn't dead, as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado proved by getting a combined $630 million. But free agency as we had come to know it has changed, and that has big implications for players, teams and even fans.
Players might now have more incentive to sign extensions before free agency. But teams also might have more incentive to retain their own stars, because similar-caliber replacements may not be available on the open market.
Meanwhile, the Phillies and the San Diego Padres look like the smartest teams of all this winter after signing Harper and Machado, respectively. Stars like that may not hit the market for many years to come.
In November, Rosenthal suggested the Yankees' lukewarm interest in Harper and Machado might have been tied to a desire to sign Arenado next winter. However, that plan backfired when Arenado inked his extension with the Rockies.
Meanwhile, what about the teams that have tanked for high draft picks and have saved money to spend in a few years after their younger players develop? Those draft picks look more valuable than ever, but the chances of adding a proven star in free agency look worse.
Perhaps Anthony Rendon will make it to next winter's market. Maybe Mookie Betts will become a free agent after the 2020 season, too.
But with another new extension (or two or three) seemingly getting announced every day, should teams be willing to bet on that?
Teams need to plan for the future. Those plans have to include players they already have, but also players they could possibly acquire. Some might become available in trades. Others could become free agents.
Maybe all of the new extensions will lead to the trade market's revival in the years to come. One American League executive predicted Tuesday night that there will be "a lot of bad contracts in five years." After all, the Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton only three years into the 13-year, $325 million contract he signed with the Miami Marlins in November 2014.
Arenado has an opt-out after the 2021 season, which could spruce up the free-agent market. But for now, players aren't counting on free agency.
And if they aren't, teams shouldn't be counting on it, either.
Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.
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