There is no notation on the calendar, no government declaration, but many agents treated Friday as a holiday, a time for celebration. The text messages might as well have contained ascending balloons and exploding fireworks, and the voices on the celebratory phone calls were filled with unrestrained joy.
Because on Friday, it became apparent that Scott Boras — baseball’s most prominent agent, someone with a long history of late-winter negotiation victories — lost to the market, in a rout.
Third baseman Mike Moustakas, one of Boras’ many clients, rejected a $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Royals in the fall, and after months of waiting for something bigger to materialize, he returned to Kansas City for little more than a third of that — $6.5 million in guaranteed money. Outfielder Carlos Gonzalez, another player represented by Boras, took a one-year, $8 million deal with Colorado, while telling friends in baseball that the year before he reached free agency, he had a three-year, $45 million offer from the Rockies.
Boras differs in style from a lot of agents in his outspokenness and in his prominence, and he draws the most scrutiny from his peers because of past battles for clients. In the cutthroat world and wars of player representation, the other agents now eagerly await the final terms of two other unsigned Boras clients, starter Jake Arrieta and closer Greg Holland, because they anticipate that those players will also have to settle for far less than what was anticipated.
Assessing a free-agent market can be like forecasting the weather. Conditions are constantly changing, and for the Players Association, this offseason has been a disastrous storm of events. The growing number of tanking/non-participating teams is seemingly growing, taking tens of millions of dollars out of circulation, after the union failed to prioritize anti-tanking measures in the last CBA talks. Historic big spenders like the Yankees and Dodgers mostly waited out on the sidelines, incentivized by the union-negotiated system of penalties and rewards attached to the Competitive Balance Tax. This generation of baseball executives is better informed and more disciplined than their predecessors, and fewer owners are apt to step in and shove aside the advice of the front office.
But it’s also apparent that in the annual Winter Free-Agent Game of Musical Chairs, the players who signed early did well, and a lot of those who waited have been left without suitable deals. In the past, Boras tarried and anticipated that the market for talented clients would eventually develop — and this paid off in the past, for Carlos Beltran, for Prince Fielder, for others.
This year, that did not happen. The players who lingered on the free-agent market, like Moustakas and Gonzalez, have mostly been crushed after leaving money on the table. Boras client Eric Hosmer did well in a market in which few first basemen had apparent landing spots, when he got an eight-year, $144 million deal. But the agents who back in December predicted a bloodbath for a lot of free agents turned out to be exactly right. In the end, relievers who signed deals quickly, from Luke Gregerson ($11 million) to Tommy Hunter ($18 million) to Pat Neshek ($16.25 million), got more than Moustakas. Yonder Alonso got a two-year, $16 million deal early in the winter, while Logan Morrison and Lucas Duda signed late and got $6.5 million and $3 million, respectively. Welington Castillo ($15 million), Chris Iannetta ($8.5 million deal) and Alex Avila ($8.25 million) all signed before February; Jonathan Lucroy agreed to terms this weekend and got $6.5 million.
As the last players scramble to make deals in the most volatile free-agent market in memory, there are probably regrets all over the place — for agents, players and even teams.
Lucroy: The Rockies reportedly offered the catcher $21 million over three years; he got less than a third of that in his one-year deal with Oakland.
Jon Jay: Early in the offseason, the Mariners sought an outfielder to assume a lot of the at-bats left behind by Leonys Martin, and they presented a three-year offer to Jay. When a deal wasn’t completed, Seattle turned to the Marlins, who were working to dump the contract of Dee Gordon, and the Mariners will now convert Gordon into a center fielder. Jay wound up taking a one-year deal with the Royals.
The Rays and outfielder Corey Dickerson: Tampa Bay tendered Dickerson a contract in December, and settled on a $5.95 million salary before arbitration. But as the prices in the corner outfield market plummeted, the Rays saw better value elsewhere, and little more than a month after signing Dickerson, they dumped him in a deal for reliever Daniel Hudson, then pivoted and signed outfielder Carlos Gomez to a one-year, $4 million deal.
Logan Morrison: The Indians had interest in Morrison early in the offseason, but when the initial ask was more than they were willing to pay, they quickly moved on to Alonso.
Greg Holland: There are reports that the Rockies gave a firm offer of three years, $51 million to the closer; other sources say Colorado’s conversations were more conceptual, and that the Rockies’ preference was for Wade Davis over Holland. Either way, the Rockies pivoted to Davis, and now, late in the winter, it’s unclear where Holland will land. Executives and agents privately speculate that the guaranteed money in any one-year deal will be something in the range of $7-10 million, based on where the market stands.
Moustakas: There is a report that the Angels offered him $45 million over three years, but Angels sources say that is not accurate; they made no offer. They have focused on defense in recent seasons and converted shortstop Zack Cozart was a priority for them at third, before he agreed to a three-year, $38 million deal. Moustakas’ best overture was the qualifying offer.
The Padres: In the end, their deal for Hosmer is far and away the most money paid for a position player in a historically slow market, and $86 million greater than the next-closest deal for a first baseman. The Phillies are the only other team that paid more than $16 million for a first baseman. The Padres paid sticker price in a winter in which a lot of clubs got bargains.
Lance Lynn: He turned down a $17.4 million qualifying offer from the Cardinals, and wound up with a one-year, $12 million deal with the Twins.
The Giants: They assumed $60.5 million of the remaining dollars owed to 32-year-old third baseman Evan Longoria, only to see the prices on free agents at the position plummet. Before Moustakas got his deal, Todd Frazier signed for two years and $17 million. With the benefit of 20-20 hindsight, the cost for Longoria — the dollars, the prospects surrendered — seems exceedingly high.
In a classic case of supply and demand, big power numbers don’t necessarily translate into big dollars because of the high volume of home run hitters. Thirteen relief pitchers got deals with guaranteed money of at least $10 million this winter, while only 10 position players have guaranteed money of $10 million or more. Moustakas, Morrison and Duda all compiled 30 or more homers, and received a total of $16.5 million.
News from around the majors
Pitchers will often spin a breaking ball early in the count — either on the first pitch, or 1-0 — simply to throw a strike, while knowing with near-certainty that the hitter is likely to take the pitch. Under those circumstances, the quality bar is at its lowest for the curveball or slider; what’s important is that the pitcher is able to drop it in for a strike, to either get ahead in the count or to get back into a more favorable position in the count. Longtime catcher David Ross, now a colleague with us at ESPN, refers to that pitch as a “dumper.” The Braves’ Sean Newcomb has an explosive fastball but needs to control the strike zone better in the eyes of evaluators, and the other day against the Jays, Newcomb repeatedly fought back in the ball-strike count with dumpers, another good sign in his development. For example: He threw a curveball to get back in the count against Kendrys Morales, and then followed it with a fastball away, for a swinging Strike 3.
Sources say there was a meeting between Major League Baseball and the union on March 2 to address some lingering issues, and again, there was a discussion of the slow free-agent market. But there aren’t really quick-fix solutions available for now, or maybe even for next winter, because the adjustments required are complex, and would need to be carefully vetted with all 30 teams. For example: While anti-tanking measures undoubtedly need to be taken to get more teams spending money on free agents, the union and commissioner Rob Manfred cannot suddenly foist a shift in the draft rules on teams that have constructed a long-term strategy. And while Manfred has a lot of power, he does not have the authority to order the Marlins to spend more money.
There is quiet optimism in the Jays’ camp mostly because Aaron Sanchez, the AL ERA leader in 2016, hasn’t had any blister problems this spring after throwing only 36 innings last season, and because of the expected increase in offense from the infield. The Jays traded for Yangervis Solarte and Aledmys Diaz, and once again hope that Devon Travis is healthy. If they can get 1,000 at-bats out of that group, the Jays are almost certain to be better than last season in a couple of spots after ranking 27th in both second base (.658 OPS) and shortstop OPS (.656).
Everybody in baseball is bestowed a job title, and Dan Duquette is the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles, while Brady Anderson is the vice president of baseball operations. But the perception of many within the Orioles’ organization is that Anderson holds more practical power right now, built on his long history with the organization. Duquette’s contract runs out after this season.
An observation from another player about Phillies infield prospect Scott Kingery: “He’s Dustin Pedroia, but with more talent.”
Some players believe the union’s focus on pace-of-play initiatives are a distraction from the larger financial issues, and the question of how the Players Association got into this position of such disadvantage.
Baseball Tonight podcast
Friday: Tigers GM Al Avila on the new and improved Miguel Cabrera; Tim Kurkjian on the Royals’ signing of Moustakas, and the best possible Home Run Derby field, now that Aaron Judge is out; Jessica Mendoza on the Astros’ decision to renew the contracts of Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.
Thursday: Aaron Judge on his decision to skip the Home Run Derby; Keith Law on Braves superstar prospect Ronald Acuna and Phillies’ pitcher Aaron Nola; Sarah Langs and the Numbers Game.
Tuesday: Boog Sciambi on Matt Harvey and the meaning of his spring dominance; Sarah Langs and the Numbers Game; Giants play-by-play man Duane Kuiper on the changes in the Giants’ lineup, and clubhouse culture.
And today will be better than yesterday.