With apologies to Matt Wieters and the handful of other presumably viable Major League talents who have yet to sign, the offseason has, for all intents and purposes, ended. Pitchers and catchers have all reported to Spring Training. Everyone else is straggling into their camps. Barring injury, clubs have made pretty much all the big moves they’re going to make.
So, after another long winter with no baseball, what have we learned? What does 2017 have in store?
Baseball’s middle class is changing
It used to be that mid-range veterans like Wieters, Michael Saunders, or Chris Carter would be able to swing a multi-year deal. But we seem to be past that point. Only 11 players got a multi-year deal with an average annual value between $10 and 20 million. Several others were forced to take one-year deals or multi-year offers for far less than what their production used to be worth on the open market.
It’s a function of several trends. For nearly a decade now, clubs have locked up their young burgeoning stars to multi-year extensions early in their careers that delay their entry onto the free agent market until a lot of their mojo is used up. Teams are also far more reluctant to “overpay” in free agency for non-elite players when they can fill those roles with a young player or players for a miniscule fraction of the same amount and receive a large portion of the same amount of production. This development has been accentuated by the development of defensive statistics and the realization that the youngest players are often some of the best defenders.
Now baseball’s middle class are those younger players who are signing extensions. It’s Wil Myers and his six year, $85 million deal. Sal Perez and his five year, $52 million deal. Carlos Martinez and his five year, $51 million extension. Players are signing them before they hit the open market, and precluding themselves from potentially larger paydays in exchange for the security of guaranteed money.
Salary inflation is slowing
Only two free agents, Yoenis Cespedes and Edwin Encarnacion, signed contracts that will pay them an average of $20 million or more this year, with just Cespedes’s deal topping $100 million. During the 2016 season, only Stephen Strasburg signed an extension for more than $100 million or for more than a $20 million annual average value. Let’s call these “Big Free Agent Deals” and “Big Extensions” respectively. Here’s what’s happened in the last five seasons and offseasons (defined as April-April):
While more work needs to be done to definitively show that salaries are slowing their climb, it certainly looks like this is a slow year. And with few exciting free agents set to hit the market next offseason, we could see similarly low numbers a year from now. Does this mean that owners have less freely available cash than they did last year? Are there just fewer worthy players and owners are pocketing the extra cash from their television deals? Is this a sign of an impending economic downturn in the game? It’s unclear. There just seems to be less money flying around, much to the chagrin of Scott Boras.
Elite relievers are in high demand
We kind of already knew this, with the hauls the Padres got for Craig Kimbrel, and the Yankees got for Aroldys Chapman, and the Phillies got for Ken Giles, and so on and so forth. There are too many of them to go through all the deals for Larry Andersons that may have given away potential Jeff Bagwells. The point is that lights out relief pitching has never been more valuable. Not even when closers were seen as special breeds who simply had some kind of secret knowledge or inner steeliness that allowed them to finish games.
Far beyond that now, however, is our understanding of how a great reliever raises the probability of victory and how simply not blowing leads leads to more wins. This is, obviously, super simplified for what’s a two paragraph explanation. But the contracts handed out to Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Mark Melancon are evidence that smart clubs who expect to compete are willing now to overpay to get the kind of reliever who can guarantee them a victory when they have a lead, especially in the postseason when regular usage patterns go out the window. We idiot statheads used to make fun of teams who handed out multi-year contracts to relievers. Not anymore.