SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly two weeks ago, on the eve of their annual FanFest, the Giants offered up their players and coaches and top baseball executives to the media. While shooting the breeze with newcomers and returning vets, I sneaked in a few labor questions. As you may have heard, the 2017-18 MLB offseason has been a news cycle with very little news.
I filed away some notes and figured that was the end of it. Surely, by the time Giants players began to arrive in Scottsdale, Arizona, for spring training, the talent pipeline would have come unclogged. Well, pitchers and catchers reported Tuesday, and had their first workouts Wednesday. And not a lot has changed.
This continues to be the worst year ever to be a Major League Baseball free agent.
According to ESPN’s tracker, as of Thursday afternoon, 90 of the 202 men who became free agents at the end of the 2017 season remain unsigned. (This number has slimmed slightly by the time you read this; for example, the Baltimore Orioles agreed to terms with pitcher Andrew Cashner on Thursday.)
This feels like a stunning ratio.
And it is. A writer named Ryan Pollack, who contributes to FanGraphs and Hardball Times, examined major- and minor-league deals signed through the end of January. He found that 2018 was the slowest offseason in 18 years, measured by total number of signings. In terms of percentage of available players signed, it was the slowest offseason in the history of free agency.
“I’m pretty surprised about it,” Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said at the media event. “This is the first year this has happened. We’re a couple weeks from spring training, and nobody has signed.”
Two weeks later, there is little cause for relief among the players.
We’re not just talking about utility infielders and setup men, either. According to ESPN’s free-agent rankings, 5 of the top 10 and 18 of the top 40 free agents are still looking for jobs. CBS Sports keeps a similar tally. It evaluates individual players differently, but the overall picture looks quite similar: 6 of the top 10, 17 of the top 40, all unemployed.
The lists include household names like J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Cobb.
“Hopefully, we get something ironed out, because there are a lot of really good star players that haven’t signed yet,” said Giants outfielder Austin Jackson, one of the fortunate free agents this year. “They’ve been a big reason that MLB is where it is now. Some of those guys are sitting at their house.”
It’s so bad that 20 free agents gathered at the IMG campus in Bradenton, Florida, on Wednesday to launch their own training camp. They’re calling it Camp Jobless. The freelancers say they want to get in shape for the season, optimistic they will eventually sign contracts. More veterans are expected to join them.
There was even, briefly, some talk of a league-wide strike of spring training this year. Could this all be heading toward another 1994, the year MLB lost its entire postseason to a work stoppage?
“No,” Giants executive vice president Brian Sabean said. “There’s a deal in place. You can have all the friction you want.”
As Sabean alluded, the 1994 mess played out in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement. There is no such vacuum now.