For the second consecutive winter, there are many quality free agents available in the second week of January, on the pitching market in particular. The Winter Meetings took place in Las Vegas, Nevada one month ago, where the industry gathers in one hotel with the expectation that things will heat up that week. There has been dialogue about setting a deadline to enable more traction, and regardless of the direction Major League Baseball decides to go, something has to change. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado continue to be the headliners, and despite their markets heating up, we are still without a decision as spring training vastly approaches.
The standoff between agents and clubs will never go away, as each side rightfully does what’s in their best interests. All markets ranging from the starting rotation, bullpen, and the hitters have had to wait, although it’s the starters who are hurt the most from getting a deal in February or even March.
For the hitters, players like Harper and Machado have limited the teams bidding for them, and they were supposed to be perhaps the best free agents ever based on age and skill set.
While many starting pitchers have found deals, teams such as the Milwaukee Brewers, Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, and Los Angeles Angels could sign a starter. The Angels have been busy this offseason adding Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill to the fold, yet their rotation has been decimated with injuries over the past several seasons, and they still lack an ace to compete in the American League West.
Dallas Keuchel is still available, and it seems that he is a victim of three factors. First, his age being on the plus side of 30, where 29-year-old Patrick Corbin possibly exceeded expectations earning a six-year, $140 million deal with the Washington Nationals. Second, Keuchel pitched average in his contract year, allowing a career-high in hits (211) and recording a 3.74 ERA. Teams are expressing an uncertainty that the “king of soft-contact” can regain his form and pitch like the 2015 Cy Young Award winner wherever he signs. The Astros have expressed little to no interest in retaining Keuchel, which could show that the management that has been around him thinks he’s not worth the investment. And finally, Keuchel is suffering from the reality of the market where if he’s looking for $100 million, teams will wait it out until they feel comfortable giving him such a contract.
Keuchel’s free agency is quite similar to Jake Arrieta, who the Phillies waited until March to sign to a three-year, $75 million deal last offseason. Keuchel might be forced to take three years as well, and it might even come from the Phillies who have been active this offseason, but have not done anything that qualifies as stupid money.
Wade Miley is another intriguing left-handed pitcher available who reinvented himself in 2018 after being signed on a minor-league deal by the Brewers. His expanded use of his cutter has made him more efficient, while not having to be a pitcher that relies on velocity.
We are still over a month away from spring training so it still feels like there is plenty of time, but for starters like Keuchel and Miley, those six weeks are crucial to their preparation. There’s been debate that spring training is too long, but it’s for the starters to make their five-to-six starts building up their workload, and these late deals can prohibit their schedule. The Major League Baseball Players Association opened up a training camp last year to help those without a team, and it might have to happen again.
Last year, the three starters impacted by a late signing were Arrieta, Lance Lynn, and Alex Cobb. Arrieta and Lynn were both inconsistent, while Cobb didn’t start the season on time, struggled early, and didn’t regain his form until September. Reliever Greg Holland was also impacted going from being offered the Wade Davis contract (three-year, $52 million deal) by the Rockies to being designated for assignment by the St. Louis Cardinals and having his career now in jeopardy.
Teams have embraced the strategy of taking their time, and analytics have also played a role. The numbers show players have a tendency to break down in their early to mid 30s. Meanwhile, it’s not just pitchers who could break down at this stage of their careers. If Brian Dozier tested the free agent market even two years ago, he’d be earning a multi-year deal possibly worth nine figures, but instead he received a one-year, $9 million deal with the Washington Nationals (which was first reported by ESPNs Jeff Passan) and fortunately won’t be the platoon player he was with the Los Angeles Dodgers all because of one season where he hit .215.
The Baltimore Orioles, Phillies, and Minnesota Twins brought in these pitchers late in the offseason because they wanted to win that year and wanted them to be integral pieces. I get it, money talks, however, if teams decide to wait until late-February or March to make a signing, it will come back to haunt them.