As a lifeless Super Bowl officially ended the football season Sunday, baseball’s buzz-free winter limped toward the finish line.
Camps open across Florida and Arizona next week, though dozens of free agents remain unsigned, including the best outfielder, Bryce Harper, and premier shortstop Manny Machado.
If you neglected to follow the hot stove, rest assured nothing of consequence has happened since the Red Sox beat the Dodgers in the World Series.
It’s the second straight free-agent freeze, and fingers are being pointed in several directions.
Some blame it on the cold, numbers-driven front-office types and megalomaniacal owners. Others suggest it’s an under-the-radar war between the two high-profile agents of Harper and Machado, desperately trying to massage the venti-sized egos of their superstar clients with the richest contract.
Or perhaps it’s just the two players themselves — dreaming of becoming the highest-paid athlete in baseball history no matter where they wind up. In case you forgot, Harper was predicted to sign a 14-year, $420 million deal with the Dodgers by MLBTradeRumors.com, while the same site had Machado getting 13 years and $390 million from the Phillies.
It’s obvious by now the lack of big-name signings has managed to spoil the only thing baseball has going during the winter — the traditional guessing game over who goes where.
“Two of the best players in the game, and (teams) have very little interest in them, from what I hear,” Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant recently said of Harper and Machado. “It’s not good. It’s something that’s going to have to change. I know a lot of the other players are upset about it.”
That change would likely have to come in the next collective bargaining agreement, as the current five-year deal ends Dec. 1, 2021. A work stoppage before then is a possibility, though no one wants to think about that with spring training on the horizon and the new season ahead.
Asked about the players’ disgruntlement at SoxFest, White Sox general manager Rick Hahn acknowledged it’s real.
“Our job is to put the best team together possible under the current rules,” Hahn said. “There does seem to be some discontent, especially the veteran free-agent segment of the player market, with how these rules affect them.
“So as a result, there probably does need to be a serious conversation through collective bargaining about how those changes need to be made.
“But as we sit here in January with what I feel is not quite a complete roster, it’s frankly not on my mind. … Right now our focus is trying to build the best team under these rules and be in position where hopefully there is not a work stoppage — which there hasn’t been for several decades plus now — and that we’re in a position to win those World Series and keep going through labor peace.”
The Sox are one of three teams, along with the Phillies and Padres, reportedly pursuing Machado and Harper. But unless you’re a fan of one of the teams, chances are you no longer care where those players wind up, assuming you ever did.
The rumors about this particular free-agent class began a couple of years ago, and speculation over the possibilities exploded on social media. Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts theorized during last year’s similar free-agent freeze that “a lot of teams would rather have dry powder a year from now,” suggesting they were saving their money for the big class of free agents after the 2018 season.
Yet the powder remains dry for most teams, and neither player seems to be in any hurry. Dozens of others remain unsigned, including the top closer, Craig Kimbrel, and one of the best starters, Dallas Keuchel.
The reasons? Who knows? But as former Mets general manager Steve Phillips once said: “It’s always about the money, especially when it’s not about the money.”
Millennial baseball players grew up believing the spending faucet didn’t have a shut-off valve. Why would they?
Just flash back to Dec. 8-12, 2000, the solar vortex of one of the hottest periods in hot stove annals. In that brief stretch at the winter meetings in Dallas, baseball handed out three of the biggest deals in history, starting with Mike Hampton’s eight-year, $121 million deal with the Rockies, the longest for a pitcher since Wayne Garland’s 10-year deal with the Indians in 1977.
Texas owner Tom Hicks followed by signing shortstop Alex Rodriguez for a record $252 million over 10 years. The third shocker came hours later, when the Red Sox ponied up $160 million over eight years for Indians outfielder Manny Ramirez.
The outcry over the spending that winter was widespread. And when Hampton claimed he and his wife chose the Rockies because they liked Colorado’s school system, eye-rolling was prevalent among baseball executives.
“It’s a lot of money, case closed,” former MLB executive vice president Sandy Alderson fumed. “I don’t want to hear about the Wheat Ridge school system.”
Even Commissioner Bud Selig proclaimed outrage over the spending, declaring: “The system has to be changed and it will be changed.”
Indeed, the system has changed. A luxury tax, known as the “competitive balance” tax, has acted as a soft salary cap, with teams trying to avoid paying the penalties. Last year only two teams, the Red Sox and Nationals, paid any tax. Many teams are also tanking, declining to spend on free agents since they’re rebuilding and don’t plan to contend.
Now it’s the players venting about the need for changes, and it will only pick up next week when camps open.
Can’t wait, can you?