These months between the 2018 and 2019 Major League Baseball seasons have been a focus for several years now. When the free-agent market was moving at a painfully slow pace a year ago, many believed that some teams were simply saving their resources for this exciting group of free-agents. The crop, which includes perennial all-stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, was once considered the strongest ever. Also in that group, as of two years ago, were expected to be Jose Fernandez, Clayton Kershaw, Andrew McCutchen, Matt Harvey, Dallas Keuchel, and Josh Donaldson. Well, most of these players did hit the open market. McCutchen and Donaldson, both former MVP's, have done well for themselves given the circumstances, but the former had his worst professional season in 2018 and the latter had to settle for a one-year deal after an injury-plagued season.
As recently as 2015, Harvey seemed to be on track for a mega contract, but he’s been a shell of himself for the last three seasons and received a one-year, $11 million contract. Kershaw did get his payday, inking a three-year, $93 million deal with the Dodgers, but he never hit the open market. Fernandez almost certainly would have received one of the largest contracts for any pitcher in league history, given his age and talent, but the Marlins' ace tragically passed away in 2016. Keuchel did become a free-agent and still figures to get a large deal, but he had an inconsistent 2018 and has not generated much attention after two months on the market.
After the Red Sox were crowned in October, baseball’s hope to remain relevant over the winter months rested on Harper and Machado. Two months later, both remain unsigned and updates on the Nationals’ star have been scant. Machado took visits in late December, spending time with the White Sox, Yankees, and Phillies. Those are three teams out of thirty. Just one-tenth of Major League Baseball has both the resources and motivation to actively pursue one of the game’s best players. The White Sox are a long-shot as they sit relatively far away from contention, while the Yankees, believed to be Machado’s preferred destination, are reportedly hesitant to make the offer he desires.
Harper’s free agency has been even quieter than Machado’s, despite being anticipated for several years. According to a report from Mark Feinsand on Wednesday, Harper’s market seems to be between the Nationals, Phillies, White Sox, and “possibly the Dodgers.” Talk surrounding Harper's pending free agency seemed to intertwine with the Yankees and Cubs throughout these last few years, but neither team appears to be interested. The Nationals at one point did not seem likely to retain the former MVP, but the slow market has perhaps made them the favorites to end a quiet free agency for the player Major League Baseball considers a face of the sport.
That 26-27 teams have seemingly no interest in entertaining Machado or Harper’s demands reflects poorly on Major League Baseball, and it serves to support what agent Scott Boras said during the equally slow free agency period a year ago. Boras blamed the lack of interest in free-agents last offseason on the “non-competitive cancer” in the sport, citing “tanking” teams that were content to to subtract from their roster and spend another season in the cellar. Boras is right. The idea that teams were saving money in preparation for this offseason, used to dismiss Boras' theory, has proven to be entirely wrong.
A third of the league, at least, is not only avoiding generational free agents such as Harper and Machado, but also any free agent whose price tag extends beyond the minimal range. Some teams, plenty of which also fall into the rebuilding category, simply can’t dream of being able to afford a Harper or a Machado. Even when trying to contend, can you imagine a world where the Royals, Athletics, Orioles, Twins, Indians, Rays, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Pirates, or Brewers consider making a run at a free-agent of Harper or Machado’s caliber? They’re not capable of doing so without the player taking up a hefty portion of their payroll. That in itself represents a third of the league, and there are more franchises, such as the Mariners and Rangers, who theoretically have the resources but have begun a rebuild in hopes of becoming the next version of the 2017 Astros and aren't looking to contend yet.
Competitive balance is central to the growing free agency problem. The Oakland Athletics are coming off a promising 97-win season, but as a small-market team, they would have no chance at luring anyone of Harper or Machado’s stature. The A’s don’t even believe they can keep Jed Lowrie, as they made a trade for low-cost Jurickson Profar to replace one of the key members of their 2018 success. Oakland has a tremendous need for starting pitching, but re-signing Mike Fiers is about as far as the front office can go to fix that problem. The Athletics will attempt to contend in 2019, but they are at a competitive disadvantage.
The same is true for the Indians, who reached the World Series with primarily homegrown talent in 2016 but had no choice but to trade off pieces this offseason just to keep their payroll at a sustainable level. Even with the limitations of small-market teams considered, revenues have reached record-highs across Major League Baseball. By the numbers, Harper and Machado should be able to land record-setting contracts, but many teams who have the money simply don’t want to spend it. Boras is frequently chided for his controversial comments about the free-agent process, but this trend is glaring evidence of what he claimed a year ago: Major League Baseball has a competitiveness problem.
Harper and Machado are only the tip of the free-agent iceberg this offseason, as many more impact players remain unsigned in the second week of January, including Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, A.J. Pollock, Mike Moustakas, Marwin Gonzalez, and Jed Lowrie. These players would all improve a majority of teams. Harper and Machado would improve all 30 teams, unquestionably. However, this perfect storm of an increase in rebuilding teams and a growing disparity between big-market and small-market teams has starved the free-agent market of competition and is forcing many players to sign contracts that are below market value.
Last year's offseason, which saw top free-agents J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, and Yu Darvish pursued by a only a small handful of teams before signing in mid-February, was not a fluke. Major League Baseball is fortunate a new collective bargaining agreement was reached before consecutive offseasons of frustration, but at this rate, a labor dispute when the CBA expires following the 2021 season might be unavoidable. The league needs to incentivize teams to compete and find ways to get small-market franchises in the game — the problem that has emerged in full force for a second consecutive offseason is not going away until changes are made, and it's only a matter of time until dissatisfaction among players boils over.