On Tuesday, the St. Louis Cardinals agreed to terms with free-agent pitcher Mike Leake on a five-year, $80 million deal. This move filled a need for the Cardinals, providing them with a reliable, durable starter to slot into the middle of their rotation. But is a middle of the rotation starter really worth $80 million? Well, yes. At the moment, in the current market, that is the going rate for reliability. While a deal of that size for a pitcher who owns a career ERA of 3.88 may seem like an overpay for St. Louis, imagine what Leake could have gotten next year, when there is much less pitching talent hitting the free agent market. Now is the time to spend and next winter St. Louis and others who address needs this offseason rather than next might be very happy they did.
This offseason, teams shopping for free agents have an assortment of options both in position players and pitchers. Let’s begin with the pitchers, where elite talents like Zack Greinke, David Price, Johnny Cueto, and Jordan Zimmermann have already signed lucrative deals with new teams. With four pitchers of this caliber available, the supply has been able to meet the demand. Next offseason could be another story, as the most intriguing options will be Stephen Strasburg and an assortment of middle-of-the-rotation types who could be severely overvalued in such a shallow market. This offseason, teams that have been unwilling to pay over $100 million for a starter can find suitable options among the second-tier free agents, which includes pitchers like Leake, Jeff Samardzija, John Lackey and Scott Kazmir. Next offseason, aside from Strasburg, teams looking to acquire pitching through free agency will be left with a much more shallow field, with names like Andrew Cashner, Brett Anderson, and Gio Gonzalez representing other viable options.
This year’s class of free agent position players is no joke either, as players like Jason Heyward, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis, Alex Gordon, and Justin Upton represent a strong contingent of impact bats. Heyward may have set the standard for this group, as last week he agreed to an eight-year, $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. However, each of the other four players listed above are expected to receive lucrative deals at some point this winter, making this a very deep class overall. Even second-tier bats like Daniel Murphy, Howie Kendrick, and Gerardo Parra are expected be well compensated whenever they sign this winter. Again, the depth of this class is far superior to the talent that is expected to hit the market next offseason, when Carlos Gomez, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion will likely be the extent of the elite tier of free agent position players. Despite the fact that each of these players will be over 30 next offseason, the demand for their services will likely be very high because of the lack of options when it comes to impact bats.
Free agency is obviously not the only means with which to acquire players, but such a shallow class could also affect the trade market. At this year’s winter meetings in Nashville, the Arizona Diamondbacks were heavily criticized for what evaluators considered an overpay for Braves right-handed pitcher Shelby Miller, but the price tag that was placed on Miller may be a starting point next offseason if the lack of quality free agents forces teams to explore the trade market. The Diamondbacks were willing to trade three valuable pieces in exchange for Miller despite the number of options available on the free-agent market even after they signed Zack Greinke to a six-year, $206 million deal. Next winter, with less alternative options, teams that are willing to trade major league talent could have their pick of a trade partner’s top prospects, as the Braves seemingly did while dealing Miller.
One other aspect of baseball’s next offseason to consider is the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was agreed upon in 2012 and will expire on December 1, 2016. This could be an issue for contract negotiations, as one point of emphasis that is expected to be addressed in the new CBA is the inclusion of player opt-outs in long-term contracts. These opt-outs are very beneficial to players, as they are given a chance to re-enter free agency if they feel that the market could allow them to receive a bigger contract. Because this is likely to be addressed in the new CBA, agents could be more inclined to ask for them next offseason, in hopes that the player they represent might avoid being subject to any rules added into the new CBA that might govern these clauses going forward. Since these clauses are a risk for the team granting them, avoiding the potential frenzy around them next offseason could allow teams to more confidently invest in players.
Bottom line: If teams are looking to add players, this is the offseason to do it. The lack of viable options next winter is alarming, and a team looking to win in the near future through free-agent acquisitions would benefit from pursuing their needs now rather than waiting a year. The new CBA could complicate matters further, and avoiding this scenario might be very beneficial next offseason. Now is the time to buy in the free agent market, and with several elite free agents already off the board, the time to make a splash is growing shorter with each passing day.