After a flurry of offseason activity, with major league teams committing $1.94 billion so far to 2022 free agents, the December 1st expiration of the CBA between MLB owners and players pulled the rug out from under the offseason ‘hot stove’ for teams like the Toronto Blue Jays.
Add in the big extensions to lock up young stars like Wander Franco, Jose Berríos and Sandy Alcantara, and the excitement generated by a truncated MLB offseason was great for the sport.
According to Spotrac, the average free agent guaranteed contract signed before the lockout was for 2.32 years and $34.65 million. That’s up from an average total contract value for free agents of roughly $17.6 million in the 2015/16 offseason.
In fact, according to CBS, the 2022 season:
"will become just the third in which at least $2 billion has been spent on [MLB players]. In the offseason of 2019-20, teams spent $2.132 billion, and in the 2015-16 offseason teams racked up a record $2,427,972,500 in guarantees to free agents."
Given 144 free agents remain out of the class of 186 at the start of the 2021/22 offseason, including top stars like Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Freddie Freeman, Clayton Kershaw and Kris Bryant, there is likely more than $1.0 billion in guaranteed free-agent spending still to come, which would help to shatter that 2015/16 offseason record.
Should Free Agency Always Have a Limited Window?
In retrospect, perhaps MLB should have a free agent signing window that only extends from November through the baseball winter meetings in early December? The threat of a lockout certainly sped up the free-agent signing process this year, and created fan interest that’s maybe lacking when top free agents drag out contract negotiations through to spring training and beyond?
The NFL and NBA both have a burst of free-agent activity during limited signing windows, with the expectation that deals for the majority of players are done before the start of their respective training camps. The NHL eliminated their unrestricted free agent negotiation window in their new CBA, which was ratified and extended through 2025-26.
For Blue Jays fans, the seven-year, $131 million extension for starter Jose Berríos, and the five year, $110 million contract for Kevin Gausman certainly helped soften the blow from the departures of Cy Young winner Robbie Ray, MVP finalist Marcus Semien, and left-hander Steven Matz, who was arguably the Blue Jays best starter down the stretch from August 1st onwards. The 2 year, $11 million Yimi Garcia signing looks like a decent bullpen addition, too.
The signing frenzy might have reminded older Jays fans of those heady days when then-GM Pat Gillick signed Jack Morris and Dave Winfield on back-to-back days on December 18-19, 1991, or Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor on back-to-back days on December 7-8, 1992?
However, this is by no means a finished Blue Jays team as they build a potential World Series contender for 2022 and beyond. The competitive window is wide open, and a payroll expansion not only looks likely but is almost guaranteed even though the team’s payroll has never exceeded the threshold for MLB’s competitive balance tax.
Given the current projected 2022 Jays’ 26-man roster payroll only sits at $137.5 million, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Blue Jays have been rumoured to be “in” on many of the remaining free agents, including posted Japanese star outfielder Seiya Suzuki. MLBTR projects the 27-year old will sign for five years, $55 million after slashing .315/.414/.570 over nine seasons in NPB.
Unfortunately with the owner lockout, plans to further solidify the Blue Jays’ rotation, bullpen and infield via free agency and trades have been put on hold.
But in future years, would accelerating the free agency negotiation window, and then condensing the signing period from November 1st through the conclusion of the baseball winter meetings in December, help spur new records?
Would a free agent signing period that ends at the end of the Winter Meetings spur a flurry of activity in November/December for teams like the Blue Jays?
Certainly, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was pushing the narrative on the impact of a condensed period in his letter to fans about the lockout, when he noted that compared to the NFL, NBA and NHL, MLB players “have no salary cap and are not subjected to a maximum length or dollar amount on contracts.”
"In fact, only MLB has guaranteed contracts that run 10 or more years, and in excess of $300 million. We have not proposed anything that would change these fundamentals."
And is free agency really “broken” as per the MLBPA? Again, from Manfred’s letter,
"in the month of November $1.7 billion was committed to free agents, smashing the prior record by nearly 4x. By the end of the offseason, Clubs will have committed more money to players than in any offseason in MLB history."
Six players signed contracts worth $100 million or more this offseason before the CBA expiry on December 1st, including former Blue Jays Marcus Semien ($175 million with the Rangers) and Robbie Ray ($115 million with the Mariners), as well as new Blue Jay Kevin Gausman ($110 million).
As per CBS, “throughout the history of free agency before the current offseason, just four players – Yoenis Céspedes in 2016, Jordan Zimmermann in 2015, and Carlos Lee and Alfonso Soriano in 2006 – signed nine-figure free-agent contracts in the month of November.”
Maybe a free agent signing period that ends at the conclusion of the Winter Meetings every year would spur a flurry of activity in November and early December, with trades after that? Might that be a more fan-friendly system than dragging out free agency for players who were on 40-man rosters the previous season?