Why has MLB free agency had ground to a halt?


We were told that once Shohei Ohtani signed, or promised to the Dodgers that he can take all his money after the ocean reclaims Los Angeles as a whole, the rest of the free agents would start to fly off the shelves. It’s now Jan. 3, spring training is about six weeks away, and most of the free agents that were in the tier behind Ohtani and Yoshinubu Yamamoto are still waiting around. It’s feeling a bit like 2019 again, when we were told that once Bryce Harper and Manny Machado signed, everything else would shuffle into place. Except neither signed until February.

Back then, the idea of “collusion” was more than whispered, especially with a CBA running down. It hasn’t been nearly as suggested this time around, especially after a couple winters of actual free-agent spending. And yet, Cody Bellinger or Blake Snell might be getting more curious about such a thing.

Then again, every big-name free agent that’s out there has some concerns. Ordinarily, the reigning Cy Young winner like Snell — who also has a second one in his house — would be batting off all the offers that are being thrown at him. Rare is the current Cy Young holder the second-best pitcher on offer, or the second-most attractive, but that was the case with Yamamoto around simply due to age. The problem for Snell is that he’s only one season removed from being ok, and two seasons removed from having a bad season. Throw in the fact that his 180 innings thrown last year is the most he’d managed in five seasons, would be a heavy bet to not come near it again, is 31, and even in his Cy-winning season walked far too many hitters, it becomes understandable why there aren’t that many teams anxious to spend $35 million for seven to 10 years.

It’s a bit of the same story for Bellinger. He was magnificent last season for the Cubs, but the air in those numbers we’ve already documented, and he’s just not that far removed from being one of baseball’s worst hitters for any team to hand him eight years or whatever.

Go down the list, and you can justify some hesitancy. Matt Chapman’s bat appears to already be on the decline, despite being the best glove at third in MLB. Marcus Stroman has been ouchy mostly interspersed with short periods of brilliance and is also over 30. Josh Hader’s walks were up and his strikeouts were down last year, and is kind of a prick about when and where he pitches now.

On the other side, Jordan Montgomery couldn’t really be a surer bet to be a solid add to any rotation. Rhys Hoskins may be coming off an ACL injury, but has always been a solid bat even just one year ago. Jorge Soler hit 36 homers in Miami last year. None of these players are franchise turners, but they’re almost assuredly solid contributors or more, and they’re still waiting.

Most big free agency deals now, considering when players get to free agency, come with an acceptance from teams that the back end will look pretty ridiculous. The hope is that the first half of the deal will make that ok. The problem for Snell or Bellinger is that there is little guarantee that they will make the first two or three years of a long-term contract seem like a solid investment.

On the other side, a bunch of teams that could or should be spending the money either aren’t or no one wants it. The Yankees traded for Juan Soto…and that’s it. The Red Sox interest in spending money went as far as Lucas Giolito to simply eat innings and give up 74 homers. The Mets are in something of a retooling and didn’t really appeal to free agents who are ready to win now. The Cubs are quite content to win 84 games and take a woeful division. The Angels might have spent wildly to please Ohtani and/or Mike Trout, but that ship sailed. The Rangers have paid out their contracts. No one wants to take San Francisco’s money, probably because Snake Plissken has just been dropped in.

The Orioles thought Craig Kimbrel was a good idea. The Reds have preferred to keep the top of their rotation reserved for their young pitchers, mostly because it’s cheaper to do so, while filling in with ballast behind it through Frankie Montas and Nick Martinez. These are two teams that needed pitching and a lot of it, and have so far just passed on the top-line version. Is that because Snell makes them queasy? Or they don’t want to spend the money at all?

It’s a flawed free agent class for sure, but it’s also been met with a host of teams that are using that as cover for their miserly ways. The Dodgers can’t sign everyone (or can they?) and it seems just about everyone else is happy to let prices and demands come back to them. Luckily for them, they can justify that on just about everyone left. Is it collusion when it’s backed up? Or is it logical when it’s so cynical?

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate and on Bluesky

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