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Passan: Why is the free agent market so slow?

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Atlanta Braves v Miami Marlins Photo by Joe Skipper/Getty Images

I’m posting this to recommend a really good piece by Jeff Passan of Yahoo on the slow (so far) free agent market. Passan challenges the conventional wisdom that the market is waiting on the Mike Stanton and Shohei Ohtani shoes to drop. It’s best if you read the article, but to summarize, Passan — or, really, the execs he spoke to — sees several reasons:

  • GMs think waiting out the market leads to better deals for teams. (I don’t really buy this one except as it applies to third-tier players like David Freese and Matt Joyce the year they signed with the Pirates.)
  • Teams place similar value on players and nobody wants to be the stupid one.
  • Everybody is busy with coaching and front office changes. (Don’t really buy this, either.)
  • Teams have figured out that the free agent market is a poor value.

Passan provides a couple of caveats. One is that the top tier talent in this year’s market vastly inferior to what’s in line for next year, absent a bunch of extensions. The other is the view of player agents that the reasons the execs give are just Rob Manfred talking points.

I think these developments, especially the second and fourth points above, are ominous for teams like the Pirates, if they hold true. I’ve thought for a long time that free agency was the best friend of the lower-revenue teams, as higher-revenue teams haven’t been able to restrain themselves from giving out bad contracts in response to the pressure to win every year. There’s a reason the level of competitive balance in MLB has been much higher during the free agency era than it ever was previously. Teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Dodgers, Phillies and Cubs have repeatedly hamstrung themselves with albatross contracts and aging rosters over the past couple decades.

Unfortunately, analytically addled GMs like Jim Hendry and Ned Coletti, to say nothing of flat-out clowns like Dave Littlefield and Allard Baird, have all but disappeared. And George Steinbrenner’s departure has finally allowed Brian Cashman actually to play products of the team’s farm system. (And, sure enough, Baseball America just named Cashman its Executive of the Year.) The more analytically advanced everybody is, the more they’re likely to enhance the value of the dollars they spend. And if everybody is spending with anything close to equal efficiency, teams like the Pirates can’t win. The Andrew McCutchen window may not be the only one that’s closing.