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When will the Hot Stove be worthy of the name?
Baseball remains at a veritable standstill, with barely a whisper of movement in the markets for the biggest players of the winter.
For a Red Sox team that hopes to add a middle-of-the-order slugger, a number of factors have left the team in a position to do little more than thumb-twiddling. First, the lack of resolution with Giancarlo Stanton continues to stall the market for power hitters.
Both the Cardinals and Giants reportedly have reached understandings with the Marlins about the framework of a potential deal for the slugger, but as Jon Paul Morosi reports, Stanton is in no rush to pick one of those teams while the Dodgers remain at least peripherally engaged in talks with the Marlins.
With J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Carlos Santana, and others representing potential fallback options for the Giants or Cardinals, Stanton’s new destination (if any — he can veto any deal) likely needs to be settled before the free agent markets for the other sluggers can gain clarity.
For similar reasons, the trade market behind Stanton has been inactive. While the White Sox are listening to offers on first baseman Jose Abreu, one major league source said that Chicago is looking for the same sort of four-for-one prospect packages that they landed last year for Chris Sale. Another major league source said that it’s not clear which other sluggers will be available in trades this winter given the relative stillness of the market.
Yet another perhaps underappreciated aspect has also played into the inactivity, namely the lack of movement in second-tier power bats. Part of the reason why teams haven’t felt compelled to get into bidding wars is because all of the fallback options remain in place. Players such as Santana, Jay Bruce, Logan Morrison, Mike Moustakas, and Yonder Alonso all remain on the board.
Teams are unlikely to start bidding against themselves and rapidly escalating their bids for the premier free agents until the most attractive second-tier options start finding new homes.
Thus far, there have been four multiyear free agent deals: An agreement between the Rangers and lefthander Mike Minor (which industry sources pegged as a reasonable three-year deal), a two-year deal between the Cardinals and starter Mike Mikolas (who spent the last three years in Japan), a two-year deal between the White Sox and catcher Welington Castillo, and a two-year deal between Oakland and righthander Yusmeiro Petit. The bats just aren’t moving.
That represents what may be a growing divide between players and teams in terms of player valuation. Last winter, there was just one free agent guaranteed more than $100 million (Yoenis Cespedes), down from seven in the 2015-16 offseason. It marked the first winter with that few $100-plus million signings since 2009-10.
Justin Turner, a player who should have been in many ways more attractive than Pablo Sandoval when Sandoval received his five-year, $95 million deal, got “just” a four-year, $64 million pact. Nine free agents received four-year deals, down from 14 in the previous two offseasons. There were 12 deals of at least three years with an average annual salary of at least $10 million per season, down from 18 in 2015-16. (All of the free agent data comes from MLBTradeRumors.com.)
One agent recently expressed concern that the game is effectively destroying the idea of a middle class, that the relatively modest growth of the luxury tax threshold under the new collective bargaining agreement (it moves up by roughly 1 percent, from $195 million to $197 million, for the 2018 season) will create a situation where salary is concentrated in stars while players who are one tier below them will get paid in what would have recently seemed like several tiers below them.
A year ago, power-hitting corner bats were stunned by their limited market options. Edwin Encarnacion’s three-year, $60 million deal fell well short of season-ending expectations; so did the deals for other power hitters, including Mark Trumbo, Mike Napoli, Mitch Moreland, and others.
This winter will shed light on whether the 2016-17 offseason represented an aberration or a new reality for free agents, at a time when the industry is exhibiting enormous caution about players in their early to mid 30s (precisely the age of free agency).
That divide, in turn, has left the market for second-tier power hitters stuck in place — taking away an interconnected gear that would move the top of the market.
Things will change, of course. While agent Scott Boras (who represents Martinez, Hosmer, and Moustakas) is renowned for lengthy negotiations that reach into late December or the new year, at some point teams will become impatient if they feel like they could lose everything in a game of chicken.
“How long can you wait?” one executive wondered.
For now, however, teams haven’t had to react to a shifting market. And so the baseball world waits out one of the quietest starts to an offseason in recent memory.
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