Before free agency started, agents and executives around the league suspected that there would be plenty of spending with a fresh new CBA and the sport’s revenue spigot back at full blast. They (and I) understated that effect, to say the least, in our pre-hot stove calculations as it became clear around the time of the winter meetings that we would see a new record for free agent spending in one winter.
The top 26 free agents on my rankings now have deals in place and the collective projections undershot reality by 17.6%. Sounds like a lot, but that means if I projected a $50 million guarantee that the player would get just under $59 million, it was actually a decent projection. Problem is, when I project $300 million that means the player would get $353 million and I don’t think we’d call that a good projection.
Top-tier contracts have exceeded the expectations that my sources and I foresaw coming in recent offseasons, so I really focused on getting more opinions from all sides to correct that error — and still missed by a good margin that was nearly 25% before Carlos Correa switched to the Minnesota Twins. That’s how frothy this market is, thanks in large part to the actions of the San Diego Padres and New York Mets.
It’s with that context that we can dive into the winners and losers of a free agency period that has moved fast enough for us to already start evaluating it as the calendar turns to 2023.
New York Mets
There’s a subtle but important aspect of the Mets’ winter right below the surface. It seems, at first glance, to be a reckless rich owner buying everything in sight and that’s at least partly true. But let’s take a look at it this way.
New York’s incoming big-ticket free agents are:
Brandon Nimmo, $20.3 million AAV, no QO/draft pick compensation
Edwin Diaz, $20.4 million AAV, no QO/draft pick compensation
Kodai Senga, $15 million.0 AAV, no QO/draft pick compensation
Justin Verlander, 2-year deal, no QO/draft pick compensation
Jose Quintana, 2-year deal, QO/draft pick compensation
And the three outgoing big-ticket free agents:
For the incoming players, the AAV numbers are very palatable and/or the deals are short and without draft pick compensation tied to their signings; there’s no cost beyond money for the incoming or re-signed players. Correa was also a non-QO signing before that deal dissolved. The outgoing players were either more expensive in AAV on a longer term deal or had big AAV/a longer term on their deal for more ordinary performances, with draft picks tied to them.
After the fact, this strategy looks pretty clear and it’s not just a happy coincidence; the Mets could’ve easily not followed this plan by chasing Aaron Judge or Carlos Rodon. Nimmo or Diaz also would’ve returned draft pick compensation if they left, but there weren’t comparable replacements available via free agency or a quiet trade market, so the Mets brought both players back. The starting pitching market, on the other hand, was very deep so there were a ton of options that played into this plan.
There’s a strategy here and it jives with Steve Cohen’s stated intent of trying to copy what the Dodgers have been doing correctly over the past decade or so. Essentially, the Mets are using what they have a ton of (money), and not giving away something that has a capped supply (draft picks) to prop up what they don’t have on their current roster and what they can’t really buy (a top-tier farm system). Using money to buy a great major league roster until the farm system can start giving you standout players regularly and become sustainable in the long term is exactly what the Los Angeles Dodgers did.
Reports suggested that Cohen didn’t make a run at Aaron Judge due to Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner supporting Cohen’s campaign to be named Mets owner. The Mets also made a peculiar choice to not offer a qualifying offer to Walker, a client of agent Scott Boras, then signed a Boras client (Nimmo) and almost another (Correa). Again, there’s some interesting and subtle things happening below the surface. Baseball is a relationship business, and that concept isn’t lost on Cohen from his prior business experience.
San Diego Padres
The Padres’ deal with Xander Bogaerts was the biggest surprise of the nine-figure deals signed this winter. My projection was six years, $168 million and I adjusted that up as the winter unfolded and prices were rising into the $180-200 million area. Once it came out that A.J. Preller had made large offers to Trea Turner and Judge but didn’t land either, there were rumors that Bogaerts would be the next target of another outsized offer. At that point, I would’ve raised my projection to well over $200 million, but San Diego guaranteeing him $280 million over 11 years was still about $50 million more than I expected moments before the news broke, even if the AAV ended up being comparable to projections.
The Padres have been active in the mid-tier free agent market, too, bringing back Robert Suarez and Nick Martinez while adding Matt Carpenter and Seth Lugo. They lost rentals in Brandon Drury and Josh Bell, with returning players Sean Manaea, Mike Clevinger, Wil Myers and Pierce Johnson also leaving while Jurickson Profar remains on the market. Fernando Tatis Jr. will also be an addition, of sorts, after not playing all of last season.
On paper, the Mets, Padres and Atlanta Braves are the class of the National League, with the Dodgers lingering just behind at the moment due to a lowkey winter. Bogaerts may have a few years tacked on to the end that don’t look great on a spreadsheet, but the Padres project to be better than in 2022. And with Yu Darvish, Josh Hader, and Blake Snell all set to become free agents after the coming season, 2023 will be yet another all-in season for San Diego.
Other winners of note
While Steve Cohen and the Mets and A.J. Preller and the Padres crowded out other clubs from making huge splashes, the rest of this list is a lightning round of solid upgrades but no real transformations.
The Texas Rangers spent big on Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray last winter before the team was ready for that level of investment. They needed more pitching depth and got it this winter, adding deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney and Jake Odorizzi while re-signing Martin Perez. Rookie of the Year candidate Josh Jung has also returned from missing most of the year due to a shoulder injury. The prospects are showing up and the payroll is still $13 million shy of the CBT, so you can now see a path to the playoffs.
The New York Yankees did what they needed to, bringing back Judge and Anthony Rizzo while adding Rodon. They’re good at backfilling the roster and bringing up prospects, so the holes to fill tend to be at the top of the roster.
The Twins checked off their offseason priority, bringing back Correa and managed to do it without trying to outbid big market clubs. Joey Gallo and Christian Vazquez were their other two notable additions. The Twins are now alongside the Texas Rangers and Chicago White Sox as the best-on-paper challengers to last year’s AL playoff clubs.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are doing things differently than the Yankees, but I loved that they could turn Daulton Varsho into a definite top-10 prospect who is big league ready in catcher Gabriel Moreno. The addition propels Arizona into the top two farm systems in baseball. With Corbin Carroll, Alek Thomas, Jordan Lawlar, Brandon Pfaadt, Drey Jameson and Blake Walston all close, there isn’t a huge impetus to block those guys with short-term solutions. Another big bat, another infielder and some bullpen help may be on the list next winter to go up another notch once the roster shakes out a bit.
Both 2022 World Series clubs have done a solid job building on what got them to the Fall Classic. The Philadelphia Phillies started the mega long-term deal trend with 11 years, $300 million to Trea Turner, and he already looks like a strong value thanks to what followed with the other free agent shortstops. Walker is an upgrade to Zach Eflin, who departed for the Rays, and the Phillies also beefed up the bullpen with Craig Kimbrel, Gregory Soto, and Matt Strahm. The Houston Astros have also done well, getting Jose Abreu at a good price while bringing back Rafael Montero and Michael Brantley. Due to their pitching depth, the Astros could afford to let Verlander walk.
I don’t love doing this part because giving knee-jerk reactions to a team’s offseason before it’s over is a fool’s errand and these teams have so much more information on the players than we do. That said, these are more big picture critiques than quibbling with a decision or two.
This one is easy as they came in second on Judge and Kodai Senga, then let the Carlos Correa deal get away due to a hesitation over the medical. Trying to shop at the top of the market and not walking away with one of those talents isn’t bad on its own; there’s normally better value downmarket, so it could even be good.
But that’s not what’s going on here. San Francisco has a solid track record of getting mid-tier free agents, pitchers specifically, and getting more than it paid for: Carlos Rodon, Kevin Gausman, Alex Cobb, etc. So, dipping into a market where it has a solid track record is smart but that doesn’t directly address the problem here: The talent base is severely lacking.
In 2022, the Giants’ magical pixie dust from the previous season ran out and their record matched their talent. The 2021 season was their last with perennial All-Star and franchise player Buster Posey. With their current roster and player procurement strategy, there are now no stars and no franchise cornerstone, but instead a rotating cast of players on short-term deals, which also equals no clear continuity and/or leadership. Is it a coincidence that the overperforming ended right when Posey left?
Is there a way for this strategy to work long-term unless the team outsmarts the free agent market regularly and creates homegrown star players? After four seasons under president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, Logan Webb is the only player that fits the latter description.
Entering the winter, the Giants were the rare team that had both the free payroll space and a roster that called for a $300 million talent — a standout player, a leader that won’t be leaving, a recruiting tool. I have confidence that they can find 1 WAR, part-time position players and role-playing pitchers efficiently. They can even find a mid-tier free agent each winter for a good value. But playoff teams need some top-tier players unless they can create a 26-man roster stuffed with good players top to bottom.
The Giants’ payroll is now about $30 million north of last season’s figure and they’re an average team on paper, with almost all of their best big leaguers in their 30s and an average farm system. This feels like a team trying to copy the Dodgers’ blueprint but getting too cute with it by trying too much to avoid the “bad” contract, trying to outsmart the market every winter, and missing the spending money part. With the all-in Padres and perennial on-paper power Dodgers in the division, San Francisco doesn’t leave much margin for error.
The Giants spent that earmarked Correa money and I’m not impressed. Correa’s deal fell apart on a medical concern, but Michael Conforto (missed all of 2022) and Mitch Haniger (57 games in 2022) sailed through theirs, costing over $75 million in guarantees for shorter-term deals. The pitching additions — Ross Stripling and Manaea — are fine-to-solid. I don’t hate Conforto at that price, but both he and Manaea are either mistakes or one-year deals due to the opt outs they have. Lefty reliever Taylor Rogers is 32 years old coming off of a down year and San Francisco guaranteed him $33 million. On top of that, Haniger’s contract is for his age-32 through age-34 seasons. All in all, the upside isn’t there to justify the price.
Correa was the key player that their whole winter revolved around. In retrospect, it seems that Judge wasn’t leaving the Yankees, Trea Turner wasn’t coming to the West Coast, the Bogaerts market got overheated due to those two truths and deGrom/Rodon don’t fit the Giants’ mid-market/pitching development strength.
That left Correa, Dansby Swanson, and Brandon Nimmo as nine-figure options, even if they came with at least 12-, seven- and eight-year commitments, respectively. The Giants needed to land one of them because all of the mid-market position player free agent options either got an extra year or two tacked onto their deals, bigger AAVs than you could logically justify entering the winter, or opt outs after the first year. The Giants’ hesitance at embracing their big market reality/past are where their struggles begin … which brings us to Boston.
Some of that same stuff is going on here with the Red Sox, but the buzz around their winter changed dramatically with the Rafael Devers extension.
The bad vibes began when Boston’s nine-figure commitment to Masataka Yoshida received unfavorable reviews across the industry, even though he will likely be a solid player. They let Bogaerts walk after having a number of chances to extend him before his huge payday from the Padres. They traded Mookie Betts for what now amounts to Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong and dumping some of David Price’s contract, all to avoid giving Betts that megadeal — and he’s been a top-10 player in baseball since. They gave $140 million to Trevor Story, and he’s been fine but nothing more — and now his past throwing issues (back to 2021 with Colorado) have manifested in elbow surgery.
I think the Red Sox also want to create a sustainable large-market monster like the Dodgers, but the farm system isn’t there yet and they have skipped the spending big part, in addition to their instincts around the nine-figure market being questionable thus far.
They have improved the bullpen this winter, adding Kenley Jansen, Joely Rodriguez, and Chris Martin, while replacing Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez in the lineup with Yoshida and Justin Turner (and top prospect Triston Casas also enters the fray) and Nathan Eovaldi in the rotation with Corey Kluber. The investments in the bullpen, which was in the bottom five in 2022, will help their record in close games and come with shorter term deals, so it’s an efficient way to marginally improve their record.
Like the Giants, I’m not sure they’re that much better on paper right now than in 2022, but the Red Sox still have about $10 million to spend until the first CBT threshold, which I’m guessing is their self-imposed salary cap. The issue here isn’t gross mismanagement, it’s not being given a CBT-level payroll and that in part leading to Boston avoiding giving huge contracts to even the most deserving candidates. Given this payroll and what other contenders have done this winter, the Red Sox have to execute at a very high level on personnel decisions across the organization for multiple years to keep up.
Table stakes for big market teams with perennial playoff expectations right now is to care enough to spend into the CBT and the Red Sox ownership hasn’t proven that they care that much. You can quibble about moves, but that’s the problem here: They will be on the losers’ list most winters when this is the payroll and they’re in this division, unless they perfectly thread the needle and/or have a bevy of top 100 prospects filling their holes.
Both the Giants and Red Sox are having problems reaching expectations because they aren’t embracing their big market pasts and current realities.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers haven’t had a bad offseason, but it pales in comparison to how they’ve looked at this point in recent winters. Trea Turner was a huge loss that they addressed with an affordable rental in role player Miguel Rojas, Cody Bellinger’s vacancy hasn’t been addressed, Tyler Anderson and Andrew Heaney were replaced by Noah Syndergaard and internal pitching depth and Joey Gallo and Justin Turner were replaced by Martinez and internal options.
This is the byproduct of having a wave of fresh top 200-type prospects graduating to the big leagues now — Miguel Vargas, Bobby Miller, Ryan Pepiot, Gavin Stone, Michael Busch and Josh Outman — with Diego Cartaya, Nick Frasso, Andy Pages, and Jorbit Vivas right behind them. The previous wave included Gavin Lux, Tony Gonsolin, Dustin May and Brusdar Graterol while the pro scouting staff snagged Evan Phillips and Alex Vesia for next-to-nothing.
Every team in baseball wants to have a previous paragraph like that, a system in which arbitration-eligible studs like Will Smith, Walker Buehler and Julio Urias were another wave and a former homegrown MVP (Bellinger) just got non-tendered for being merely OK now.
So, the Dodgers are the team built to sustain through a quieter offseason, maybe with the aim of resetting their CBT tax and hoping these young players along with Trayce Thompson, James Outman and Daniel Hudson can play prominent roles, potentially becoming proven commodities by year’s end.
A quieter winter with young players taking over and possibly resetting their CBT tax looks a lot like what Boston and San Francisco seemed to be doing the last few years, they just didn’t create a top-tier farm system or go out and spend on Betts and Freddie Freeman to give themselves a chance to pull it off. Dodgers president Andrew Friedman mentored both Chaim Bloom and Farhan Zaidi in their previous roles, so it’s reasonable to assume they are totally aware of this and know how to address it, they just haven’t yet.
Small market owners
With revenues exploding, free agency as healthy as it’s ever been, and people like me taking teams to task for not spending into the CBT, it really makes you wonder what in the world the owners of the Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Guardians and Oakland Athletics are thinking.
After decades of essentially saying, “We can’t afford to spend that much, but we also won’t show you our books, just trust us,” owners in this post-Cohen world now look either like 1) they don’t actually care about winning or 2) they can’t afford to compete financially. It’s infinitely more likely that it’s reason one rather than two.
There literally isn’t another explanation for a team not being competitive, because you can always fire a GM and bring in another one until you get what you’re paying for. The problem is not paying enough to expect results. The Rays are the outlier, continually getting results from less, and some others like the A’s, Guardians and Milwaukee Brewers will pretty consistently get solid results from less, but how do they justify only offering their front offices “less” to deal with?
Where does Cohen’s spending bring us? Do twice as many teams spend into the tax to stay competitive? If he doesn’t win a World Series, does he just keep spending more until he does? Do other teams scoff and wait for the next CBA to try to completely outlaw what he’s doing? Would they be willing to lose a season to a lockout to institute some sort of hard cap? Would the MLBPA ever agree to that under any circumstances? Do the owners try to team up and figure out a way to oust Cohen? Will they just try to pressure him to tone it down over time? Will the economic model of baseball explode?!
You may think this is hyperbolic, but this is the sport that’s been the most hard-line about salaries (including actual collusion and stuff that looks a whole lot like it) without a salary cap. From the league/owner perspective, they now have a real problem on their hands — because all the owners look bad and these guys aren’t going to let that stand. The big question now is: How will things change?
Source : Sky.com