Every baseball offseason begins in a state of uncertainty, the market difficult to predict. But this year promises to be even more unsettled given that the rules governing the business of Major League Baseball are being renegotiated.
One day after the Atlanta Braves won the World Series, the offseason got under way Wednesday, with 160 players — including Red Sox Adam Ottavino, Hansel Robles, Eduardo Rodriguez, Danny Santana, and Travis Shaw — officially becoming free agents. On Sunday, they will be free to negotiate with other teams.
Sunday also will bring another round of decisions regarding player and team options. For the Sox, the 5 p.m. deadline will reveal whether J.D. Martinez opts out of the final year and $19.375 million of his contract, whether the Sox pick up their $7 million option on Christian Vázquez, and whether they extend a one-year, $18.4 million qualifying offer to Rodriguez, which would entitle the Sox to a draft pick if the lefthander heads elsewhere.
More obvious decisions also loom Sunday. Kyle Schwarber almost certainly will decline his side of a mutual $11.5 million option and become a free agent, and the Sox seem certain to decline their $10 million option on righthander Garrett Richards and $6 million option on Martín Pérez.
That flurry of decisions, however, is likely to give way to a crawl by mid-November. The industry is braced for another slow-moving offseason given that teams and agents are still waiting to see how the market conditions might change.
Foremost among the questions: Can owners and the Players Association agree to a new collective bargaining agreement by the time the current agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. Dec. 1? If not, a lockout by owners — with a resulting transactions freeze — seems likely.
Yet even if there is an agreement, teams and players may need more clarity about what it includes before diving headlong into new contracts for free agents.
Some key issues that will affect how the market works:
▪ What will the luxury-tax threshold be? And what penalties will come to those who spend past it?
The 2017-21 CBA featured modest increases to the threshold, from $189 million in 2016 to $210 million in 2021. While a growing number of teams had accepted paying a luxury tax as an acceptable cost of business before 2017, the current CBA included significant penalties — up to 95 percent for every dollar spent over the threshold, along with the loss of potentially tens of millions of dollars in revenue sharing rebates — for going over the threshold repeatedly, along with penalties related to the draft and international amateur signings.
As a result, some teams treated the threshold as a salary cap. Those that were willing to spend past it still contorted themselves to get under it at least once every three years in order to reset tax rates.
MLB made an opening proposal to the players this year that featured the introduction of a salary floor, but perhaps more significantly the lowering of the tax threshold from $210 million in 2021 to $180 million in 2022. It’s impossible to imagine the players agreeing to any deal that lowers the threshold.
Meanwhile, a rise in the threshold — reasonable, given the massive revenue growth in the game, with owners nearing mountains of money in new TV and gambling deals — could encourage salary growth. As such, teams may wait for the new CBA before pursuing free agents to get more clarity about their budgets for 2022 and beyond. Players may want to wait for a new deal to try to get their biggest offers.
▪ Will there be a universal designated hitter?
The answer has significant implications for Martinez, who must make his decision about whether to opt out well before the CBA is resolved, as well as Schwarber. If the new deal includes a universal DH, the market for both players could be robust given that 15 National League teams will have to start planning for life without pitchers wasting at-bats.
One industry source called it a “foregone conclusion” that the new deal will include a universal DH. If there is, players such as Martinez and Schwarber — capable of playing other positions but ideally on a limited basis — may find the most active markets of their careers.
▪ Might there be limits on the size of pitching staffs?
If so, starters could see an uptick in activity. While Rodriguez is expected to generate interest regardless of whether the Red Sox make him a qualifying offer, that could increase if teams are unable to load up with 14-pitcher staffs.
▪ Will the penalties for signing top free agents change?
Currently, teams that (a) exceed the luxury-tax threshold and (b) sign players the following offseason who receive the qualifying offer to multiyear deals of at least $50 million, lose their second- and fifth-highest draft picks, along with $1 million in international bonus pool money.
Teams such as the Red Sox that (a) don’t receive revenue-sharing money, (b) don’t spend past the threshold, and (c) sign such a player, lose a second-round pick and $500,000 in international bonus pool money.
Such penalties represent at least a moderate deterrent to the pursuit of top free agents who receive qualifying offers, a group that will include Carlos Correa, Marcus Semien, and Trevor Story this winter. If the new CBA diminishes or eliminates those penalties, teams could be more inclined to pursue top free agents, something that may prompt players to wait to see what opportunities arise.
All of those factors point toward a slow-moving start to the offseason, with most of the movement to come after a new CBA is negotiated.
It’s possible that such a pace, even if there’s a lockout, will have only a negligible effect. After all, last November just five players were signed to major league deals as free agents, and all of those were one-year deals (including lefthander Robbie Ray re-signing with the Blue Jays and righthander Charlie Morton going to the Braves). Of the eight deals guaranteeing players at least $30 million, seven were signed in mid-January or later.