The Mets spent more than the Yankees in 2018, and other MLB teams are following suit. The Yankees didn’t spend much at all to avoid baseball’s luxury tax for the first time since 1995.
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When MLB free agency started, one of the most common topics of conversation among agents and executives was how many players would sign huge contracts before the collective bargaining agreement ended on December 1. The general consensus was that only a few players would sign for $75 million or more, and some even believed that none would. They also anticipated lesser total volume than normal.
All of it turned out to be… completely incorrect!
Now we’re in the middle of a lockout that will likely keep the market frozen for months, but before December 1, there was a flurry of activity that no one could have predicted. Over the course of nearly three weeks, clubs gave out 51 MLB contracts for a total of $1.974 billion in guaranteed money. Another $1.655 billion was paid on extensions in the 2021 calendar year, with approximately $1.1 billion going to five players: Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Jose Berrios, Francisco Lindor, and Fernando Tatis Jr. Let’s take a look at the lessons learnt from the first half of the offseason, which was highly entertaining and busy.
The Mets went all out. The New York Mets didn’t have a great season in 2021, finishing third in the National League East with 77 wins and losing in the World Series to the Atlanta Braves. Things have improved with the changing of the calendar to November. Robinson Cano’s season-long ban is over, Jacob deGrom should be back to full strength by the start of the season, and they signed free agents Max Scherzer ($130 million guaranteed), Starling Marte ($78 million), Mark Canha ($26.5 million), and Eduardo Escobar ($20 million). The Mets are currently tied for first place on FanGraphs’ depth rankings with the greatest clubs in baseball, thanks to these additions. The Mets, who had 34.6 WAR in 2021, are expected to have 48.0 in 2022, behind just the Dodgers and Yankees (by a hair).
The Mets now have a nearly full roster (and the highest salary in baseball), although the rest of the league does not, and will have some time to catch up before games begin. The Mets did not win the bidding for former Met Steven Matz (Cardinals) and lost free agents Javier Baez (Tigers), Noah Syndergaard (Angels), Aaron Loup (also Angels), and Marcus Stroman (also Angels) (Cubs). However, having a virtual tie for first place in talent and first place in money is something Mets fans haven’t had in years, so it’s important to appreciate what you have.
The Rangers felt the same way. The Texas Rangers have been quietly plotting and announcing to the baseball world that they aim to make a significant leap forward in 2022 and challenge for a playoff position in 2023. They lost 102 games in 2021 and, according to Steamer estimates for 2022, their greatest player (top prospect Josh Jung) has played in a total of zero games in the major leagues.
The Rangers have spent a lot of money and become a lot better, even more so than the Mets. The most expensive — and perhaps greatest — double-play combo in the American League will be Corey Seager ($325 million guaranteed) and Marcus Semien ($175 million). Because he had spent his whole career in Colorado, Jon Gray ($56 million) was a favorite buy-low free agent.
The problem is that the Rangers have three new top players but the same remainder of the squad behind them despite spending over half a billion dollars. This isn’t the NBA, where that’s all it takes to alter your playoff fate. On paper, the Rangers are the 23rd-best club in baseball, with 32.1 WAR predicted, according to the same FG depth charts that summed up the Mets’ scenario (versus the 16.6 they posted in 2021). That’s a significant gain, but it’s not quite enough to qualify for the expanded playoffs. In the end, three of the 26 positions on the Opening Day roster are still in need of improvement. In the post-CBA era, the Rangers’ future actions will be intriguing to watch: How far are they willing to go?
But there hasn’t been much investment from the front-runners… yet. The Mets, Rangers, Blue Jays, Tigers, Mariners, and even Rays were the only teams to offer nine-figure contracts; the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Yankees were left out. The Dodgers signed utilityman Chris Taylor to a four-year, $60 million contract, while the Red Sox signed James Paxton to a one-year, $10 million agreement. Paxton was coming off a season in which he only threw 113 innings. The Dodgers have lost Scherzer and Seager, the Red Sox have lost Eduardo Rodriguez, and the Yankees seem to be looking for a shortstop, so I anticipate movement from this group when the new CBA is finalized.
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What we got right — and what we got wrong Motivated bidders that move early in the free-agent season usually generate the largest discrepancies between predicted and actual contracts, which is precisely what occurred this year. If you exclude when I got too cute and tried to guess Baez being the best player who had to settle for a one-year deal (all negotiated by Scott Boras with eager-to-improve clubs), the Seager, Semien, and Scherzer deals (all negotiated by Scott Boras with eager-to-improve clubs) were my biggest misses. Baez’s market was startling in of of itself, with a handful of clubs apparently proposing nine-figure contracts (a reality that a lot of execs still say no team would or should do).
Apart from those four transactions, the only significant surprise was the volume of business completed before the December 1 deadline. There were no significant changes in the market — The next-biggest agreements went to Kevin Gausman, Robbie Ray, and Marte for about what was predicted. Rodriguez, Taylor, and Matz all received a year longer than most anticipated, while Stroman was given a more creative framework than most expected.
So, what’s next? Carlos Correa seems to be in line for the last big shortstop contract, while Freddie Freeman will get rewarded for being the greatest bat on the board. Aside from those two, Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, Michael Conforto, and Kyle Schwarber will fight with Trevor Story for the next-biggest contract for a position player, and one of them will almost certainly be pressured into settling for a deal that falls short of expectations. (Story, with his throwing troubles, may be the most likely candidate for a one-year contract.)
As the money runs out and motivated bidders mark things off their shopping lists in the second part of free agency, I believe we’ll see less “Oh, he got a year more than I anticipated” comments and a lot more “Oh, he only got that?” When I checked in with various agents during this spending frenzy, expecting to hear joy, the majority of them thought the owners front-loaded their huge contracts before the lockout to counter the MLBPA’s allegation that teams were pocketing money and being anticompetitive. When the CBA is approved, these agents predict that clubs will return to being more frugal with their expenditures, which is a pattern that nearly always occurs towards the conclusion of the winter.
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