The Blue Jays, The Slow Offseason And The Power Of The Question

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 27: Starting pitcher Alex Cobb
CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 27: Starting pitcher Alex Cobb /

The question defines the answer.  Could the reason for the slow Blue Jays (and MLB) offseason not be the teams?

There has been considerable talk this offseason about the slow pace of free agent signings, particularly of top-end free agents.  It is almost February, and of the MLBTR top 10 free agents only two (Lorenzo Cain and Wade Davis) have signed.

Many theories have been advanced, ranging from owners’ reluctance to exceed the new CBT “soft cap” to the 2018-19 free agent superclass to outright collusion among owners.  Each of these hypotheses seeks to answer the question “why are teams not signing more players?”

But teams are making offers.  Jake Arrieta is reported to have six offers outstanding, and Yu Darvish may have even moreJ.D. Martinez has multiple 5-year offersEric Hosmer, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn – all are reported to be sitting pretty, with money on the table from multiple teams.

It is said that the way you ask a question defines the direction of the answer.  So suppose we ask the same question in another way.  Not “why aren’t teams signing more players?” but rather “why aren’t players accepting offers?”

Toronto Blue Jays
Toronto Blue Jays /

Toronto Blue Jays

For the obvious answer, we need look no further than Scott Boras, who recently said “I wouldn’t blame the baker if the flour doesn’t show up“.  The classic free-agent paradigm (some say invented by Boras) is for a player to get a few early offers, which allow him to determine the market.  Knowing what a “standard” offer looks like, they then wait for the outlier offer.  So if the first three teams offer four years and $100m, the target becomes 5/$125m.  The theory is that if a player has multiple offers at the original figure ($100m in my example), the risk of ultimately getting less is minimal.  But the chance that some owner blinks – that his star player is injured, or the team is unable to swing a trade they were counting on, or their division rival makes a major upgrade – is very real.  So waiting results in some upside with limited downside.  This paradigm has the additional benefit of making the agent look good – what player would want to pay millions for an agent who just accepts the first offer?

This year, however, the paradigm appears to be changing.  So far, at least, the teams are not blinking.  It could be because teams are using similar analytics to evaluate players, so fewer teams have radically different views (and are accordingly willing to pay radically different prices).  Or it could be a game of chicken – because so many different players are using the same tactic, teams are thinking “If I don’t get player X, I can always target player Y”.

Implications for the Jays

So if this is true, what are the implications for the Jays?

First, the criticism of Team Shapkins for not doing a major deal might be unwarranted.  The only top players to sign so far were overpays (at least relative to MLBTR projections) – Wade Davis, Lorenzo Cain, Tyler Chatwood.  In fact, it appears that the Jays have accurately gauged the market sentiment by not moving too early.

Second, it is entirely possible that surprise signings could be in store.  After waiting so long, agents might be uncomfortable accepting offers that have been on the table for months.  A team like Toronto might be able to swoop in and “steal” a free agent with only a marginal offer improvement.

And finally, once the chips start falling the competitive landscape could change significantly, and in a hurry.  Teams might also find themselves in payroll situations they did not fully anticipate – either over their budget or with excess funds they were reserving for an expected signing that did not pan out.  This could lead to an unusually active February trade market, and potentially to increased financial flexibility on the part of some teams.  As for example- if the Royals do not succeed in signing Eric Hosmer for 7/$147m, might they be more receptive to bringing back Kendrys Morales?

Next: Where does Marcus Stroman rank among MLB starters?

The bottom line

It is entirely possible that the slow offseason we are experiencing in 2017 is a one-time perfect storm, caused by factors that are unlikely to recur (Stanton, Ohtani, Marlins).  But it is also possible that this will become the new standard, at least for non-Megastars.  So far, the Jays appear to have learned the rules to this new game, and are using patience to their advantage.  Will they be able to shift into nimble mode once the water starts churning?  Should be an interesting February.