They call the Major League Baseball offseason the hot stove league, but let’s be honest. This process has become more like a vintage Easy Bake Oven, cooking up new contracts not with a burst of flaming gas but with a 100-watt light bulb.
The situation could experience a seismic shift at any point, of course, but as of Friday afternoon the pace remained tepid — just as it was a year ago. Starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez are still out there waiting for a phone call, as are outfielders A.J. Pollock and Nick Markakis, and shortstop Jose Iglesias, and relief pitcher Craig Kimbrel, and third baseman Mike Moustakas and utility man extraordinaire Marwin Gonzalez and a lot of other damn good ballplayers.
On Friday, ESPN’s free-agency tracker listed 22 of its top 50 players as still on the market, following the Yankees’ acquisition of second baseman D.J. LeMahieu. CBS Sports put the figure at 20 of its top 50 free agents.
OK, that doesn’t sound terrible. We’re just 12 days into January, and the majority of the top baseball freelancers have found homes. But remember, this includes all the guys who signed with their 2018 teams, like pitchers Nathan Eovaldi of the Red Sox, Hyun-Jin Ryu of the Dodgers and J.A. Happ of the Yankees. You would expect some of these players to be wrapped up early by their existing clubs.
And those are just the top-tier candidates. The ESPN site was listing 172 ballplayers still looking for contracts as of Friday. Many of them would be worthy contributors, if not standouts.
Locally, the A’s have been mildly active, re-signing pitcher Mike Fiers and gobbling up reliever Joakim Soria and catcher Chris Herrmann. Meanwhile, the Giants have broken the bank by signing ambidextrous reliever Pat Venditte for $585,000.
But it isn’t just the percentage of players inking deals. It’s the length of those agreements. Of the top 28 freshly signed players on that ESPN chart, only eight received contracts of three years or longer. There has really been only one deal all offseason that could be construed as a whopper. That would be the six-year, $140 million contract that starting pitcher Patrick Corbin shook loose from the Nationals.
Most of the free agents have failed to gain any long-term security. Ryu, C.C. Sabathia (Yankees), catcher Yasmani Grandal (Brewers), third baseman Josh Donaldson (Braves), designated hitter Nelson Cruz (Twins) and pitcher Matt Harvey (Angels) are among those who came away with one-year deals.
Grandal will get $18.25 million for that one season in Milwaukee. That’s nothing to sniff at. But how does Grandal, who was an All-Star in 2015, a top-25 MVP vote-getter in 2016 and a World Series starter in 2018 — at one of the most sought-after positions in the sport — warrant nothing more than a one-year tryout?
Meanwhile, the two whales of 2019 MLB free agency, outfielder Bryce Harper and infielder Manny Machado, aren’t finding the lines around the block they might have expected. Multiple outlets report that only three or four teams are making serious runs at the two young sluggers.
I get it. There’s a logic behind all of it.
Take the hesitancy over Harper and Machado. Plenty of MLB teams have been burned by uber-contracts in recent years. The Tigers paid Miguel Cabrera $30 million last season, the third in an eight-year, $248 million deal, and he played just 38 games. The Angels are still limping along under the burden of the 10-year, $240 million contract they gave Albert Pujols in 2012; he hit .245 with 64 RBIs in 2018. Chris Davis signed with the Orioles for seven years and $161 million in 2016; last year he hit .168, with an on-base-plus-slugging percentage (.539) fit for a pitcher.