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Why So Slow?

The New York Times wonders why the pace of transactions has been so slow this offseason:

A review of baseball’s transaction history since 2001 showed that the only period featuring fewer signings in the first 12 days of open bidding than this year came in the 2002-3 off-season, when Jesse Orosco was the only free agent who had signed. Each of the last five free-agent off-seasons included at least six signings by this stage, led by the 2006 bonanza when Alfonso Soriano, Juan Pierre, Nomar Garciaparra, Gary Matthews Jr., Aramis Ramírez and Frank Thomas signed before Thanksgiving...

Some baseball executives have suggested that many teams, unsure of how long it will take for the economy to rebound, are reluctant to offer expensive multiyear deals.

It is unclear how well baseball is insulated from the country’s economic troubles, but it is clear that people in the sport are concerned.

It's too early to draw firm conclusions about why so few free agents have signed, but it's not too early to wonder. This article reminds me of the 2002-2003 offseason, when teams were spectacularly thrifty with certain types of low-impact talent, and the Pirates wound up signing Reggie Sanders, Matt Stairs, Kenny Lofton and Jeff Suppan for practically nothing.

In 2003, those players all exceeded expectations, but the rest of the team simply wasn't very good, and the bullpen was a disaster. This year, Neal Huntington has said he's going to wait awhile before signing free agents. Although he isn't going to be able to sign the equivalent of Sanders, Stairs, Lofton and Suppan for pennies on the dollar, waiting may turn out to be a productive strategy in this economic climate. Suppan didn't sign until the end of January, and Sanders and Lofton didn't sign until mid-March. This may be the only time in Huntington's tenure in which emulating Dave Littlefield is a good idea.

It's really a shame that the Pirates aren't in a position to take advantage of market conditions. If there's a market downturn, it probably won't affect marquee players like Mark Teixeira, and mid-level free agents aren't going to get the Pirates anywhere this year. A team like Tampa Bay, which really could benefit from some mid-market talent, might find useful players at good values this offseason.