Baseball’s free agent market has been slow to clear this offseason. Spring training is seven weeks (!) away and only a quarter of the top 80 free agents have inked deals. Zack Cozart’s contract with the Los Angeles Angels was an exception. Other than locking up relief pitchers, clubs are being patient. Front offices are hoping that the longer they wait, the weaker the market becomes.
Several factors contribute to this trend. A younger generation of general managers, armed with plenty of data, may see less value in big spending on players in their 30s. While money in the sport and spending on salaries has increased across the board, teams are behaving as though baseball’s squishy salary cap — $197 million in 2018 — is semi-hard. A few of the big-spending teams are trying to dip below the cap for a year to reset the escalating penalty rate for going over. And clubs are saving up for next offseason’s super-class of free agents, assumed to include Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Craig Kimbrel, possibly Clayton Kershaw and many more.
What does this mean for the Reds?
Dick Williams has said the Reds are a year away from becoming meaningful buyers in the free agent market. But what if the free agent market softens far enough for the Reds to adjust their plans and dive in a year earlier? As big-stack teams pause to save their resources for Harper and Machado, might an unexpected one-year window open up for the Reds to exploit?
Last week, Tom Mitsoff suggested names of relief pitchers (including Jared Hughes, who the Reds did sign) and starting pitchers. But how far would the price have to fall on Lorenzo Cain, Jon Jay or Austin Jackson before the Reds thought about signing one of those players to a multi-year deal?
How does a weakening free agent market affect the Reds ability to make a couple sell-high moves?
It’s hard to say. As front offices pay close attention to data on aging curves, their preference for younger players increases. That means acquiring talent by trade. Adam Duvall (29), Scooter Gennett (27) and Billy Hamilton (27) are not as old as the average free agent who has worked through six years of team control. Those Reds players also wouldn’t come with long-term obligations or top-of-the-mark salaries. The one player who could be moved for a huge return is Raisel Iglesias. But according to reports, the Reds have set the asking price for their closer so high teams have become discouraged to even ask.
On the other hand, a softening free agent market may tempt teams to with the hope of swooping in and picking up a great deal — less money, fewer years — on veteran players. Signing free agents, as opposed to trading for talent, means not having to give up prospects.
The stagnant free agent market presents unexpected challenges and opportunities to Dick Williams. Par for the course for someone with his job. He’s almost certainly better suited to adapt to changing circumstances than the previous regime.
That’s far from saying the Reds should jump headlong into the free agent pool. The list of available players is hardly breathtaking. The Reds aren’t the clichéd “one player away” from contending, even if that player were Mike Trout. Any deal would have to be “too good to refuse” for the Reds to accelerate their time frame by a year. It’s worth watching.