The term “free agents” is a misnomer. In fact, the veteran baseball players seeking to sign with the highest bidder are anything but free.
They can cost as much as $43.3 million a year or $430 million over the life of a contract.
Max Scherzer, the ageless ace of the New York Mets, broke the annual average value mark when he signed last winter, while Mike Trout, winner of three Most Valuable Player awards as an outfielder for the Anaheim Angels, is about to enter the sixth year of his record 13-year contract, signed in 2018.
With the Baseball Winter Meetings scheduled to start in San Diego Sunday, however, both records could have less longevity than the AL-best 62 home runs hit by outfielder Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees last summer.
Judge himself could break both, especially after missing a rare Triple Crown season by an eyelash. Sluggers who can also hit for average, steal bases, and field their position don’t exactly grow on trees.
With managers, general managers, owners, agents, and even a few players under the same roof (the Hyatt Manchester) for four days, anything can happen – and often does.
Unlike 2020, when the meetings were cancelled by Covid-19, and 2022, when the culprit was an owners’ lockout that lasted 99 days, the San Diego confab is virtually certain to shake up the rosters of all 30 teams – especially contenders coming off just-missed campaigns.
That means the high-spending New York teams, as well as the wealthy Los Angeles Dodgers and even the surprising Philadelphia Phillies, who nearly won a World Series after finishing third in their division, will be on the prowl for the best bargains, though hardly at bargain prices.
According to Spotrac, the Mets have the highest projected 2023 payroll at $184,674,999, about $20 million more than the third-ranked Yankees.
Already this winter, the Mets kept Edwin Diaz by giving him the biggest contract ever given to a closer (five years, $102 million) and the World Champion Houston Astros signed 36-year-old slugger Jose Abreu (three years, $58.5 million), proving that age is not necessarily a barrier to a big-bucks contract.
After winning his third Cy Young Award, Justin Verlander seems poised to top Scherzer’s AAV even though he’ll turn 40 before spring training. Jacob de Grom, whose injury history and looming 35th birthday may dissuade potential buyers, also could be dazzled by a lucrative short-term deal in deference to his age.
Even lefty starter Rich Hill, at 43 the oldest active player in the majors, should have his suitors. Maybe 42-year-old DH Nelson Cruz will find a new home too.
After Judge, Verlander, and de Grom, the best available signees are four shortstops with All-Star pedigrees: Xander Bogearts, Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson, and Trea Turner.
They are among hundreds of free agents who played out their contracts or were non-tendered by their teams before the deadline for submitting salary offers.
Scott Boras, the controversial and outspoken super-agent, represents numerous players in this year’s market and goes to great lengths to promote and place each one. His staff even prepares detailed booklets that suggest somebody like Sugar Bear Blanks is actually the second coming of Honus Wagner.
The boisterous Boras loves media attention and gets more than his share, especially with beat writers from individual cities seeking scoops and quotes to please their editors. He’s usually in the corridor near the press room, waiting for a crowd to gather before answering questions.
When the meetings were last held, in San Diego three years ago, he celebrated the Yankees’ signing of pitcher Gerrit Cole (nine years for $324 million) by hosting a large dinner party of clients at Fleming’s, a pricey steakhouse, the night the deal was announced.
Those meetings also generated nine-figure contracts for Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon, signing identical seven-year, $245 million deals with the Nationals and Angels, respectively. That money seems minuscule now that Commissioner of Baseball Rob Manfred reports that the game generated about $11 billion in revenue in 2022.
Teams that can’t afford the gravy train can settle for doing business the old-fashioned way: trading.
In 1980 alone, St. Louis Cardinals general manager Whitey Herzog made a pair of trades that moved 18 players, including future Hall of Famers Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons, within a four-day span.
Eight years later, the Texas Rangers not only signed native Texan Nolan Ryan but made moves involving 15 other players.
Another future Hall of Famer, Roberto Alomar, was involved in the 1990 winter meetings swap that sent him and Joe Carter from San Diego to Toronto for Fred McGriff and Tony Fernandez.
McGriff, who went on to hit 493 home runs, could make news this year too, with the first vote of the Contemporary Baseball Player Eras Committee, an offshoot of the old Hall of Fame Veterans Committee. McGriff and two-time MVP Dale Murphy headline an eight-man ballot also occupied by suspected steroids abusers Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.
A tradition as old as the game itself, the first winter meetings were held in 1876, the year the National League started play.
At the first session, the NL elected William Hulbert president and kicked the New York Mutuals and Philadelphia Athletics out for failing to complete their schedules.
No such punishments are probable this year – especially with players protected by a powerful union – but the meetings will have plenty of opportunities to pair physicians, publicists, traveling secretaries, and officials of every professional team, including the 140 remaining at the minor-league level after the majors swallowed the old National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues.
When the minors ran the meetings and the majors tagged along, the itinerary included a jobs fair, awards luncheon, gala evening event, and trade show of such baseball-related products as mitts, mascots, and munchies. It attracted thousands of attendees, including hordes of hopefuls seeking to hook onto low-level jobs that paid peanuts. Getting into the game was the main attraction.
That’s how the free agents look at it too. Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, and Ryan were among the superstars who found new teams at the winter meetings.
With four years left on the current Basic Agreement between labor and management, the 2022 winter meetings will include the Rule 5 draft of minor-leaguers, a manager’s luncheon for media members, and appearances by Manfred and union chief Tony Clark, a former player whose contract as executive director of the Players Association has just been extended for five years.
Beyond the expected avalanche of player transactions, the highlight could be Sunday’s Hall of Fame election announcement, to be carried live on MLB Network at 8p EST.
Those chosen will be included in the Class of 2023 to be inducted in Cooperstown next July 23 along with anyone chosen by the Baseball Writers Association of America, to be announced late next month.