Baseball’s 2022-23 offseason has come with an onomatopoeic motto: “Cha-ching!”
It’s been a head-spinning time for the business of baseball, with megadeals consummated at every turn of a scope and duration that seemed almost unimaginable a few years ago. The Yankees will pay Aaron Judge $360 million over the next nine years — the largest guarantee made to a free agent. Carlos Correa will earn $350 million over the next 13 years from the Giants. Trea Turner (11 years, $300 million) and Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million) aren’t far behind. Four more free-agent deals have registered at more than $100 million this winter.
What on earth is going on? Why has the restraint of recent offseasons — when nine-figure deals came in drips, and usually only in January or February, after most or all of an entire offseason had lapsed — given way to frenzy?
One postseason moment might have captured what’s transpiring across the industry. In the joyful chaos following the Phillies’ clinching NLCS Game 5 victory to advance to the World Series, Philadelphia owner John Middleton approached Bryce Harper, who became the face of the franchise when he signed a 13-year, $330 million deal prior to the 2019 season.
Harper — the NL MVP in 2021 — had just hit an epic game-winning homer that unleashed an emotional frenzy in Philadelphia. Middleton put his hands on the star’s shoulders.
“I’m not sure you can underpay somebody when you give them $330 million, but I’m pretty sure I underpaid you,” Middleton told Harper.
“Un ****** believable”— John Clark (@JClarkNBCS) October 24, 2022
“I think I’ve underpaid you.
I said, ‘I’m not sure you can underpay somebody when you give them $330 million, but I’m pretty sure I underpaid you’”
-I asked Phillies owner John Middleton what he told Bryce Harper here pic.twitter.com/Ds9r8mWShx
A growing number of owners — with Steven Cohen of the Mets (Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Brandon Nimmo, Edwin Díaz, and more), Middleton (Harper, Turner, J.T. Realmuto), San Diego’s Peter Seidler (Bogaerts, Manny Machado), and Ray Davis of the Rangers (Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Jacob deGrom) particularly notable among them — has entered into the star-signing business, hoping to capture the imaginations of fanbases that had or have endured years of losing teams. Their entry into big-ticket free agency has added to competition at the top of the market with higher-payroll teams.
“I think you’re seeing a group of very competitive teams, owners that are doing the very best they can to try and bring a World Series championship to their market,” said Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy. “You’re seeing these very competitive owners and general managers pushing really hard.”
Atop the evident motivation of the owners, there’s also money coursing through the game and a restored sense of stability in the sport’s economic climate. Teams are benefiting from new national media deals, new sources of revenue (gambling, advertising on uniforms, etc.), and just enjoyed a $30 million-per-team windfall from the sale to Disney of MLB’s video streaming company, BAMTech.
At the same time, after five years of labor agitation during the 2017-21 Collective Bargaining Agreement, the new CBA negotiated this spring made clear the financial rules of the road for teams — including a significantly raised luxury tax threshold (from $210 million in 2021 to $230 million in 2022 and now $233 million in 2023).
New Collective Bargaining Agreements tend to come with a whoosh of spending once teams recognize the new rules under which they’re operating. That’s certainly been the case this offseason.
Additionally, the crowd restrictions put in place at the deadliest phase of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-21 — no live audiences during the compressed 2020 campaign, and limited capacity for many teams at the start of the 2021 season — have fallen by the wayside.
Finally, the addition of an extra playoff team in each league has added to the sense of possibility for teams. After all, the Phillies made the playoffs as the No. 6 seed in the National League — a postseason pathway that did not exist a year earlier — before re-energizing their organization and fans with a run to the World Series.
“Revenues and competitiveness [are motivating spending],” said agent Scott Boras. “We could say that it used to be 40 percent [of teams] that really tried to compete and now I think we’re up to about 60 to 65 percent of the clubs think they have an opportunity to get into the playoffs. The Phillies are a really good example that you can get in and get the last playoff berth and win the pennant.”
All of that is occurring at a time when an increasing number of star players in their primes are reaching free agency — whether they declined to sign long-term deals early in their careers (Judge, Turner) or because they negotiated opt-outs into prior deals (Bogaerts, Correa, deGrom). There are stars available and revenue-rich clubs that are ready to go after them, creating a market that is very different from the one in which the Phillies and Padres faced few competitors for Harper and Machado after the 2018 season.
“[Harper and Machado] were great players that were right in the prime of their careers. There just weren’t as many teams that for whatever reason were really involved from that standpoint,” Padres GM A.J. Preller said at the Winter Meetings, just before reaching his deal with Bogaerts. “Right now, whether it’s ownership, whether it’s teams that fell short in the playoffs, teams that did well in the playoffs, teams that are ready to take a step from maybe a three-, four-, or five-year rebuild, you look up and there’s few teams that are taking a step back. Almost everybody is looking to advance forward. And that, along with some really quality players, is why it’s a very aggressive market.”
FORK IN THE ROAD
Red Sox, Giants took similar path — until Correa
Over the last few years, the Red Sox and Giants — the two teams with the most titles in the 21st century, and two of the teams with the most loyal fanbases in beloved ballparks — followed similar trajectories.
After years of championship contention, both had gutted their farm systems and decided they needed to turn over the title-winning cores of their rosters. They made front office changes to lead that process, with both franchises turning to first-time heads of baseball operations. The Giants hired Farhan Zaidi from the Dodgers after the 2018 season (with Chaim Bloom as the runner-up), and the Sox hired Bloom from Tampa Bay after 2019.
The last four years have been similar for the franchises: Third-place finishes in 2019, losing records and no playoffs in the COVID-compressed 2020 campaign, unexpected success that delighted and re-energized their fanbases in 2021, then painful regression in 2022 that was accompanied by huge attendance drops.
The Sox had 2.6 million attend games at Fenway, the lowest turnout in a non-COVID year in the 21-year history of the current ownership group. The Giants — in their first season following the retirement of franchise icon Buster Posey — had 2.5 million fans, their worst attendance in a full-capacity year in the history of Oracle Park.
For San Francisco, the sight of sparsely attended late-season games was alarming and framed the offseason. As much as the team is focused on contending in a dogged NL West, the Giants also worried about fan apathy in the absence of a recognizable star.
“Whose jersey are they going to wear at our games?” wondered one Giants official.
The Giants made a concerted effort to answer that question this offseason, pursuing a star to upgrade their roster and capture the imaginations of their fans. They made a hard run at Bay Area native Judge and then, after he re-signed with the Yankees, pivoted to Correa with a 13-year, $350 million deal.
(The Yankees’ motivation to sign Judge similarly included very real marketing concerns. “We had to bring him back. He makes so much [money] for us,” said one team source. “We couldn’t have replaced him by adding two or three guys.”)
With Correa headed to San Francisco, what had been similar team-building paths for the Giants and Red Sox forked. The Sox, rather than adding a marquee name, lost another franchise icon when Xander Bogaerts signed with the Padres. (Perhaps obvious but related: major league sources said the Sox were never meaningfully involved in the bidding for Correa.)
With Bogaerts gone, the team has used its payroll flexibility across a number of targets — to date, Masataka Yoshida ($18 million per year), Kenley Jansen ($16 million per year), Chris Martin ($8.5 million), and Joely Rodríguez ($2 million).
There’s still room to add. The Sox’ total commitments (as calculated for luxury tax purposes) are roughly $40 million below the $233 million luxury tax threshold and $42 million below what the team spent in 2022.
But the free-agent market is now heavily picked over, and the Sox still have enough needs (middle infielder, righthanded bat, starter) that it would be a surprise if the team did make a move for a star.
Even with Correa, there’s no guarantee the Giants — who were 81-81 last year, 30 games behind the Dodgers in the NL West and six games behind the Phillies for the final wild-card spot — will be legitimate contenders next year. But San Francisco does now have a player who will serve as the face of the franchise for whatever comes ahead. Depending on what happens with Rafael Devers, the Red Sox cannot necessarily say the same.
VÁZQUEZ MOVES ON
Catcher tried, but Sox weren’t interested
Christian Vázquez — who signed a three-year, $30 million deal with the Twins last week — never made any secret of his desire to remain with the Red Sox. But the only time the sides discussed an extension on top of the three-year deal (with an option) that he signed in the spring of 2019, talks went nowhere.
Before the Sox picked up Vázquez’s $7 million option for 2022, they proposed tacking on a year but at a lower average salary for 2022-23 than the option. Vázquez declined the proposed pay cut, and the sides never re-engaged.
Still, Vázquez loved Boston and wanted to explore every avenue for a return — even after the team traded him to Houston. He made that clear to the Sox this offseason, going so far as to reach out to the team before giving the Twins his final answer, but the Sox never showed interest in bringing back the player who is tied for the fifth-most games caught (651) in franchise history.
“They’re going to be in my heart forever. It was tough to leave Boston. I spent all my career, 15 years, with them,” Vázquez said at his Twins introduction. “But now we have a new chapter in my career and I’m very excited to be a Minnesota Twins.”
▪ In the context of this year’s market, Kodai Senga’s five-year, $75 million deal with the Mets was seen as falling potentially below expectations. Why? Evaluators identified two reasons. First, while Senga’s high-90s fastball and black hole splitter are standout weapons, some wonder whether his inconsistent control (8.6 percent walk rate in 2022 and a 9.3 percent career walk rate) could push him to the bullpen. Secondly, medical concerns gave some teams pause about giving Senga the sort of guarantee. Still, the Mets are in a position to be able to spend their way through some medical risks in pursuit of upside, and there’s a chance that Senga could emerge as a mid-rotation force.
▪ To reward players whose salaries are near the big league minimum, the new Collective Bargaining Agreement introduced a $50 million bonus pool (with the cost shared by a $1.67 million contribution from all 30 teams) to reward top performances among players who are not yet eligible for salary arbitration.The bonus pool was distributed to 100 top performers with fewer than two years and 116 days of service time — the cutoff point for arbitration eligibility. White Sox starter Dylan Cease — who finished in the top-five in the AL in both Cy Young voting and MLB mustache rankings — received a bonus of nearly $2.5 million, more than triple his $750,000 salary for the 2022 campaign. John Schreiber — who made the prorated major league minimum ($700,000) once called up to the big leagues in April — was the only Red Sox to receive a bonus, adding roughly $245,000 to his earnings.
▪ The three-way deal that sent catcher Sean Murphy from the A’s to Atlanta marked the first major trade of the offseason, but while Murphy’s relocation was widely viewed as a foregone conclusion entering the offseason, major league sources expressed uncertainty about who else will move. The Marlins are trying to deepen their lineup and, aside from Cy Young winner Sandy Alcantara, are willing to move starting pitchers to do so. Edward Cabrera, Pablo López, Jesús Lazardo, and Trevor Rogers are all drawing considerable interest — with correspondingly high asking prices. The Diamondbacks are open to dealing from their wealth of young outfielders, with Daulton Varsho, Jake McCarthy, and Alek Thomas all up for discussion.The Pirates haven’t ruled out dealing outfielder Bryan Reynolds but, despite his trade request, are reluctant to do so as they try to move towards contention in the next couple of years — a period during which they still have team control over the switch-hitter. While one major league source dismissed industry rumors that the Pirates would need a Juan Soto-like package of young players to move Reynolds, the bar is high, leading to skepticism that he’ll be dealt.
▪ While Chaim Bloom has vowed that the Sox will be active in the trade market, there are questions about what kind of deals the team might be able to consummate. Top prospect Marcelo Mayer is off limits, and it’s likewise unimaginable the team will deal either Brayan Bello or Triston Casas. Without the inclusion of those three players, evaluators from several teams questioned whether the team would have an anchor to get a deal done for a top big league talent. Tanner Houck, Ceddanne Rafaela, Bryan Mata, and Josh Winckowski were described as potential secondary pieces for teams that would expect major league-ready return for controllable mid-rotation starters or everyday position players. Moreover, the Sox have seemed less than eager to move Rafaela. “They’re hugging him very tight,” said one NL evaluator. “Understandably so.”
▪ Had the Sox’ evaluation of Jeter Downs at the time of the Mookie Betts trade been borne out, the 24-year-old likely would have been a huge part of the team’s post-Xander Bogaerts middle infield equation. Instead, after two years of Triple-A struggles (.193/.292/.368 with a 31.1 percent strikeout rate) and a 2022 big league debut in which Downs struck out in 21 of his 41 plate appearances, the Sox designated him for assignment on Thursday to clear a roster spot for outfielder Masataka Yoshida.
▪ Speaking of Yoshida: While multiple members of the industry expressed surprise the Red Sox reached a rapid five-year, $90 million deal with the star outfielder that surpassed expectations of many teams in the industry, the Sox were willing to buck industry consensus to pursue a player they believe can be a star, especially at Fenway. According to VP of professional scouting Gus Quattlebaum, Yoshida had been on the Sox’ wishlist for years, with Pacific Rim coordinator Brett Ward pounding the table long before the NPB star was posted this offseason. “Wardy recognized this bat a long time ago for us, and cited him as one of the better pure hitters that he’d seen since Ichiro [Suzuki],” said Quattlebaum. “We see Masa as his own player, but that caught our attention when a scout tells you that.”
Boston College alum Blake Butera was named to Team Italy’s coaching staff for next year’s World Baseball Classic. Butera — the son of Barry Butera, who spent four years in the Red Sox minor league system from 1977-80 — is a decorated minor league manager for the Rays. He became the youngest minor league manager in history for Hudson Valley in the New York-Penn League as a 25-year-old in 2018. He’s won Manager of the Year honors in back-to-back years with the Single-A Charleston RiverDogs … For the first time since January 2020, the Red Sox are planning to conduct a Rookie Development Program in Boston this winter, bringing prospects with a chance to contribute in the near future for workouts under the supervision of members of the major league and minor league coaching staffs … Former Single-A Salem manager Luke Montz, who turned down an offer to return to the Red Sox in 2023, has been hired to manage the Padres’ Double-A San Antonio affiliate … Happy 65th birthday, Bobby Ojeda (Dec. 17). Signed by the Red Sox in 1978 as an undrafted free agent, Ojeda threw 718 innings for the Red Sox — fifth most by a lefty in the last 50 years — before getting dealt to the Mets for Calvin Schiraldi prior to the 1986 season, a trade that loomed large when the Mets beat the Red Sox in the World Series that year, with New York winning both games started by Ojeda (including Game 6, in which Schiraldi took the blown save and loss). Evidently, there were no hard feelings. According to colleague Dan Shaughnessy, on the way to the team bus out of Shea Stadium, Bruce Hurst stopped in the Mets’ clubhouse to congratulate his longtime teammate … Happy 26th birthday, Darwinzon Hernandez (Dec. 17). In 2019, Hernandez looked like an emerging late-innings force. He’s been unable to build upon that big league start at least in part because of health issues (COVID in 2020, oblique injury in 2021, torn meniscus in 2022), but if healthy, he still has a chance to forge a role given that he’s struck out 42 percent of the lefties he’s faced in the big leagues.
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.