A real signing deadline? Could be fun

Flurry of activity before current CBA deadline ramps up Hot Stove excitement

November 29th, 2021

As the hours ticked down toward the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, the names and notifications started flying…

Until this week, an offseason signing deadline was nothing more than an abstract idea, a one-time proposal that went nowhere and was not really worthy of our oxygen.

But now that we've had a small, somewhat accidental taste of what such a deadline would look like, it’s hard not to be intrigued.

To be clear, there is not actually a signing deadline attached to the current labor climate. It only feels that way.

With so many labor issues still unresolved in advance of the CBA expiration at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday and the distinct possibility of an upcoming freeze -- of undetermined length -- on baseball business, teams and agents have heightened the temperature of the Hot Stove. They have sought certainty in the present, because of the uncertainty of the near-future. And because it can take a day or two to arrange and complete physical exams after a player agrees to a contract, Monday was viewed as a deadline day, informal though it may be.

Going into the offseason, we didn’t know the free-agent market would erupt quite like this. If anything, most of us thought things would be quiet leading into the CBA expiration. But the starting-pitching market percolated quickly, and, as is annually the case at the July Trade Deadline, the ticking clock inspired action.

Perhaps that is a lesson that can -- and should -- be applied during the ongoing CBA negotiations or in a future agreement. Because even amid college football’s rivalry week and an NFL Sunday, MLB found a way to nudge itself into the news and whip up a frenzy for a number of fan bases.

From a fan perspective, this pace of pacts -- particularly if it could be engineered to accelerate at the time of the Winter Meetings -- is clearly preferable to a long winter slog that drags to and through the opening of spring camps. Three years ago, the Winter Meetings were so distinctly dull -- especially relative to their Las Vegas locale -- that there wasn’t a single deal made that even necessitated the use of the press conference platform erected in the media room.

The question is whether players, who work for and earn their right to free agency, would ever agree to a more orchestrated offseason schedule.

What we know for sure is that, in 2019, they did not. Somewhat fresh off that silent scene in Sin City, MLB reportedly proposed to the MLB Players Association a one-time trial of a deadline for multi-year pacts that would have been scheduled for the end of the 2019 Winter Meetings. That proposal went nowhere, because the union was concerned that players would lose leverage.

Again, as an abstract idea, you can look at a December deadline a couple of different ways. Yes, it would rob players of those instances in which the approaching season and other, unforeseen instances late in the winter inspire teams to get more aggressive in their pursuit of a particular player. The example that immediately jumps to mind is when Tigers designated hitter Victor Martinez badly injured his knee in a January workout, and Detroit swiftly signed Prince Fielder to a mammoth nine-year, $214 million contract to essentially be his lineup replacement.

The counter is such situations are rather rare, and the increasing penchant for clubs, in recent years, to bide their time in the winter market often puts players on edge and sometimes drives them toward a lesser deal than what they had sought earlier in the offseason.

What we’ve seen in recent days is an abstract deadline with a non-abstract effect: Teams aren’t just spending quickly, but spending big. For the 31-year-old Semien to get a seven-year deal and for the 30-year-old Avisail Garcia, who has graded out just a bit better than league average at the plate over the last four seasons, to get four years and $53 million, were especially glaring examples of how aggressively teams pursued talent in advance of the CBA expiration.

If a hard deadline on multi-year signings is a non-starter, perhaps there are other ways to improve the way the Hot Stove season unfolds.

While MLB does have a five-day quiet period that begins with the conclusion of the World Series, perhaps an extension of that moratorium through the awards season -- a period in which the rumor mongering can run rampant, as it does for a week each summer in the NBA -- would have the net effect of steering both sides toward deals that are completed in late November and early December. Another quiet period during the late-December holiday season could also improve the odds of the sort of Winter Meetings spectacle that would improve fan engagement in the offseason and benefit the industry. We talk about pace of play a lot in our game, but the pace of the offseason matters, too.

More and more, baseball’s general managers come from non-playing backgrounds. But they all got into this business because of their competitive nature. A smaller signing window would feed into those competitive instincts. This is no longer an assumption or a hypothesis. This is a model we have unwittingly and unexpectedly encountered here as a matter of CBA circumstance.

A work stoppage would not be fun, but this free-agent spending spree in preparation for the potential of one sure has been. Not that MLB and the union don’t already have enough to talk about. But they should be talking about this.