A whirlwind of deals has energized offseason

November 30th, 2021

The first month of the offseason has produced more than $2 billion worth of guaranteed deals for more than two dozen players, leading some to wonder just how broken the current system truly is.

Yet the sport races toward Wednesday night, when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is set to expire, with the possibility of a lockout looming as a realistic possibility.

Based on what we’ve already seen this offseason, the question is: Why?

The teams shelling out significant cash to free agents haven’t been the same old suspects. Non-playoff teams were responsible for the eight biggest contracts handed out as of Monday night, highlighted by the Rangers' double-whammy of Corey Seager (10-years, $325 million) and Marcus Semien (seven-years, $175 million). Texas also reached a deal with Jon Gray for four years and $56 million, part of a $516.2 million spending spree by the club.

The Mets handed out nearly $125 million in contracts to Starling Marte, Mark Canha and Eduardo Escobar on Friday, then agreed to a three-year, $130 million deal with Max Scherzer on Monday. Scherzer’s deal is a new high for the largest average annual value (AAV) in baseball history at $43.3 million.

The Tigers kicked off free agency by signing Eduardo Rodriguez to a $77 million pact, then added another star on Tuesday, agreeing to a six-year, $140 million deal with Javier Báez. Kevin Gausman is set to leave the 107-win Giants for the Blue Jays, who agreed to a five-year, $110 million deal with the right-hander.

“If the system didn’t work, players wouldn’t be signing until after the new rules were established,” a National League executive said.

All of this spending took place prior to the end of November, and that was before Monday, when Scherzer, Seager and Ray all agreed to their nine-figure deals.

Then there’s Carlos Correa, who most industry insiders believe will command a deal north of $300 million before all is said and done. Correa would become the 10th player in history to top the $300 million mark, joining new member Seager, Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Francisco Lindor, Fernando Tatis Jr., Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Gerrit Cole and Manny Machado. All of those contracts, with the exception of Stanton’s, were signed during the current CBA, which began in 2016.

A number of players have recently said that Dec. 1 isn’t a deadline of any kind, yet the flurry of signings suggests that a number of free agents and their representatives believe otherwise. Free agency has been a slow burn for the past few years -- Harper and Machado both signed their huge deals in late February -- but there has clearly been urgency for free agents to find contracts prior to a potential lockout.

According to ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan, MLB has made several offers to address some of the MLBPA’s concerns and perceived desires. Among them were an increase in the CBT (competitive balance tax) threshold, the elimination of free-agent Draft-pick compensation, a Draft lottery similar to the one the NBA employs, the universal designated hitter and an increase of the minimum salary.

The league’s belief appears to be that these concessions would improve competitive balance on the field, an issue that has come up time and time again from players and agents concerned that teams are tanking and negatively impacting the market. The two sides are gathered in Dallas for bargaining sessions this week, trying to work out a deal before the current CBA expires Wednesday night.

How different has this offseason been as compared to last year? Last November saw only five free agents sign deals worth at least $1 million -- all for one year and none for more than $15 million.

The first $20 million deal wasn’t signed until Dec. 15, when James McCann signed a four-year, $40.6 million contract with the Mets. Ha-Seong Kim’s four-year, $28 million contract with the Padres was the only other deal worth more than $20 million that was signed before the end of 2020.

No player signed a deal worth as much as Rodriguez’s $77 million deal until Jan. 27, when DJ LeMahieu signed a six-year, $90 million pact with the Yankees. This month, five free agents have already topped the $100 million mark, with Seager topping $300 million.

Of the 14 contracts handed out last winter worth at least $20 million, 12 were signed after Jan. 19. As of Monday afternoon, 17 players had already agreed to $20 million or more in guaranteed money.

“I think there is fear of the unknown on both sides,” an American League executive said. “There is only one thing I know for sure: deadlines bring deals, and Dec. 1 is a looming deadline. Players like to know where they are going.”