One day before the first workout of pitchers and catchers in Red Sox spring training camp, a strange, unsettled feeling prevails throughout baseball. With nearly 100 free agents unsigned, there’s a palpable sense that the offseason isn’t over, that rosters are still in a formative state.
The game has never seen a market that was so sluggish, where the free agencies of so many top players (J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, etc.) bled into the official start dates of spring training.
In Red Sox camp, the Martinez question will hover nearly every day until he chooses his destination. According to major league sources, the Red Sox’ current five-year offer remains in the vicinity of $100 million — closer to that mark than the $125 million figure that has been reported.
The Sox continue to covet Martinez for the middle of their lineup. He represents the best answer to the team’s 2017 power deficiency.
“I’ve talked to him a couple times,” said pitcher David Price, who played with Martinez in Detroit in 2014 and 2015. “I told him we’d love to have him here. He knows that and he’s going through his process.”
Nonetheless, in the absence of other obvious suitors willing to push the auction price higher, the team has shown little inclination to bid against itself, even as it has maintained what agent Scott Boras described to the Globe last week as a “good-faith negotiation.”
Martinez isn’t alone. The agreement between the Cubs and Yu Darvish on a six-year, $126 million deal last week represented the first nine-figure contract of an offseason that was expected to deliver a handful of them. It’s been a strange winter, one that in many ways has befuddled numerous members of the industry who have struggled to recall anything like it.
Yet there have been past instances of late-forming markets.
Rewind to the winters of 2002-03 and 2003-04, the first two offseasons after team owners and the MLB Players Association managed to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement without a strike.
According to an Oct. 30, 2003, article in the Los Angeles Times, the MLBPA considered a grievance charging owners with collusion to fix salaries by employing an information bank that permitted clubs to know the offers being made to players by competitor teams. Entering the 2003 season, free agents such as Reggie Sanders and Kenny Lofton were left to twist in the wind until mid March, when they took one-year deals in the vicinity of $1 million.
Current baseball commissioner Rob Manfred, then MLB’s executive vice president of labor relations, denied that owners were conspiring to depress or fix salaries, saying, “Did the market look different last year? It looked different for legitimate reasons. I mean, it should not have been a shock that it looked different.”
Formal collusion charges were never filed. But that time of tension is an interesting one to ponder now, given what occurred during it.
The game experienced an unusual market correction that resulted in the availability of free agents at drastically different salaries from what had been offered before and would be offered after. From 2003-04, salaries around the game declined by 2.5 percent. The winter spending binge of 2000-01 that saw the game reward young superstars such as Alex Rodriguez ($252 million for 10 years) and Manny Ramirez ($160 million for eight years) gave way to dramatically more modest contracts.
Jim Thome reached a six-year, $85 million deal with the Phillies after the 2002 season — a 30 percent discount on what Jason Giambi, a similar player, had struck just one year earlier. Then-29-year-old superstar Vladimir Guerrero signed a five-year, $70 million deal in January 2004 — earning less than half the guarantee made to Ramirez.
It is possible that this winter — one in which the Yankees and Dodgers are sitting out of the highest end of the free agent market while trying to get below the luxury-tax threshold of $197 million — represents a similar time. And if so, it likewise represents a significant opportunity for a Red Sox team that is among the few willing to spend beyond the luxury tax threshold.
The Red Sox are in an enviable position in that they have money to spend.
They are not in an enviable position with the state of their minor league system. There is a dearth of high-end prospects to anchor deals for elite players, suggesting that it is preferable for them to anticipate potential needs now rather than address them on the trade market in July.
They have the resources to add Martinez and bolster other areas of their roster. As much as team officials believe in the potential of Carson Smith, Joe Kelly, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman to assume primary setup roles, they also recognize that they lost the pitcher — Addison Reed — they acquired to cement that spot last year.
Likewise, questions remain about the middle-infield depth and whether Marco Hernandez, Brock Holt, Deven Marrero, or Tzu-Wei Lin truly represents a quality fallback option for Dustin Pedroia (and, should they be injured, Xander Bogaerts or Rafael Devers). The Sox have a choice to invest in an insurance policy now or wait until the summer to figure out whether they need to make a move.
At a time when few teams are spending, the Sox have an unusual opportunity to make considerable upgrades in the weeks preceding the season. As much as the winter has seemed like an exercise in Martinez-or-bust, they still have a chance to aim higher, and to find the sort of late-spring upgrades that may help them avoid a trip to the trading block later.
Will that be the team’s approach? Right now, like so much else about the market, that remains an unanswered question.