By Joel Sherman
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Winter Meetings were killed by smart guys. Date of death, December 2017. Send money to Scott Boras in lieu of flowers.
Many reasons coalesced to create the least active meetings perhaps ever — the methodical Boras having five of the biggest players in the market, for example. But nothing has frozen the market more than the groupthink that now pervades the industry by a bunch of bright folks who so similarly value players and how to spend money and on what.
The day of the overheated GM jumping out to unfreeze the market is in decline, if not gone. Consider Derek Jeter lost his pristine reputationbefore a non-catcher position player other than Leonys Martin (who had a .513 OPS last year) signed a major league free-agent contract this offseason, showing the lockstep that teams are striding.
Want more proof?
Five years ago the majority of executives believed relievers were fungible and just about anyone with stuff could close. Thus, why spend big in that area?
But then analytics revealed that most starters should not face a lineup more than two times, increasing the need to deepen bullpens. This only becomes more dramatic in the postseason, motivating the best clubs to concentrate on bulking up.
Thus, the one market that has moved in December is setup men getting the kind of sizable two- and three-year contracts that would have made those handing them out the laughingstock of executives five years ago — who, by the way, were them.
Meanwhile, the starting pitcher market has thus far cratered. Two of the three starters who received major league contracts at the Meetings – Michael Pineda and Drew Smyly – had Tommy John surgery last summer and might not even pitch in 2018. The largest starter pact given out so far this offseason is $38 million over three years by the Cubs for Tyler Chatwood because, among other things, he has an elite spin rate on his breaking ball.
That is not exactly what would have prodded a cigar-chomping wheeler-dealer of yesteryear like Trader Jack McKeon to move. But those days are done. In its place is a love for young, controllable players and financial fear of extending contracts too far into the future and baseball operations staffs so thick that every concept is examined to a point of paralysis.
Is this concerning for the Players Association? You bet. They are always looking for signs of collusion. But where teams seem to be in cahoots is in how they view the market.
In this free-agent field, for example, they see a lack of great players at the top. There are debates between analysts and scouts about the true value of Eric Hosmer and if J.D. Martinez can play the field. Atop the starting pitcher market, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish worry teams with the current state of their stuff and/or their long-term hopes for durability.
It is hard to establish a market without someone setting the high mark for others to slot under.
With a meh crop of free agents yet requests for top-of-the-field salaries, teams have focused on trades, and the Marlins’ Jeter-led teardown has led to the two biggest moves so far – Giancarlo Stanton to the Yankees and Marcell Ozuna to the Cardinals.
But even trades are mostly stalled because teams so widely protect their best prospects now.
Add in that traditional big spenders like the Yankees and Dodgers are actually cutting payroll, as is perhaps half the league, including the Mets. That leaves fewer teams to bid strongly and thus this dynamic:
No club wants to set the top of the market when they believe time creates leverage as players get desperate when the calendar turns to January, spring training nears and agents lower the prices. Meanwhile, no representative wants to lower the top of the market and hurt not just his client but everyone else.
So you have a freeze that, for example, keeps the Mets wondering if someone like Jay Bruce’s price plummets in January, and they can scoop him up at what they find is a more tolerable price.
After all, the Meetings concluded on Dec. 14, and the first spring camps open Feb. 14. That leaves roughly 60 days to sign, perhaps, still 60 free agents who believed they would get multi-year contracts when this offseason began.
On the dawn of the free-agent market, Stanton was traded and Shohei Ohtani signed with the Angels, and that was supposed to unfreeze the market. Instead, the chill persisted through the Winter Meetings with no immediate signs of a thaw in sight.