Major League Baseball kicked off the 2021-22 free agency period with a flurry of signings in advance of the league-wide lockout period beginning December 2. Thus far, several teams have vastly improved their rosters over last season by signing impact-free agents. The Texas Rangers and New York Mets stand out as teams who splurged in the first foray into free agency. On the other hand, teams such as the Houston Astros and Philadelphia Phillies began the offseason in a quiet manner. Both teams only signed a handful of mostly low-impact players.
As it stands, more than $1.7 billion has been committed to free agents for next season and beyond. This easily eclipses last offseasons’ total expenditures by almost $400 million. And this does not even include the dozens of free agents who have yet to agree to contracts. It is a safe bet that MLB teams will combine to spend well over $2 billion this offseason. For reference, a record of $1.4 billion has already been spent in one day this offseason. Clearly, teams set on contending for the playoffs next year are going all-in on free agency. The question is, will it make a difference?
The Spending Teams
MLB free agency this year has unfolded in a most unpredictable manner. Several teams who have neglected to spend big recently went all in. This includes the Texas Rangers, who have spent a combined $561,200,000 on free agents so far. Most of this was dedicated to the Rangers’ new double-play combination of shortstop Corey Seager and second baseman Marcus Semien. These players combine to form perhaps the best middle infield in baseball despite being on different teams a month ago.
Texas seems to be cashing in on free agents as they look to return to the playoffs. Seager, a former NLCS and World Series MVP with the Dodgers, signed a 10 year, $325 million deal with Texas. Semien signed a 7 year, $175 million contract with the Rangers after an MVP-caliber season with the Toronto Blue Jays. In addition to Seager and Semien, the Rangers signed former Rockies’ starting pitcher Jon Gray to a 4 year, $56 million deal and former Angels’ outfielder Cole Calhoun to a 1 year, $5.2 million deal. All of these players look to propel Texas into contention in the A.L. West.
Another team that splurged plenty of cash in pre-lockout free agency was the New York Mets. Mets owner Steve Cohen committed to lifting the Mets out of the doghouse once and for all. Even with all New York’s on-the-field talent (Jacob DeGrom, Pete Alonso, Francisco Lindor, and so on), they have failed to qualify for the playoffs in each season since 2016. Cohen, after spending $111.5 million in free agency last offseason, committed to even more spending with newly hired General Manager Billy Eppler overseeing the farm.
The Mets kicked things off by agreeing to contracts with 3 free agents in just one day. This includes outfielders Starling Marte (4 years, $78 million), Mark Cahna (2 years, $26.5 million), and infielder Eduardo Escobar (2 years, $20 million). The very next day on, New York agreed to terms with 3-time Cy Young Award Winner and future Hall of Fame pitcher Max Scherzer on a 3 year, $130 million contract. This shattered the record for average annual value of any MLB player signed in free agency. Cleary, the Mets are going all in to finally return to the playoffs.
One other team making headlines in MLB free agency this year was the Detroit Tigers. They combined to spend $217 million, the most for the club since their last window of contention before 2015. It seems the Tigers are looking towards contention with MLB-ready or close to MLB-ready contributors such as pitchers Casey Mize, Matt Manning, and Tarik Skubal as well as position players like Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene. Detroit’s offseason began by agreeing to terms with starting pitcher Eduardo Rodriguez on a 5-year $77 million deal. They then pivoted to position players, having a particular need for a middle infielder.
While the club strongly considered former Astros shortstop Carlos Correa (especially with his connection to Tigers’ manager A.J. Hinch), they ultimately signed infielder Javier Baez to a 6 year, $140 million deal. Baez serves as a massive upgrade with a productive (albeit up and down bat) and gold glove-caliber defense at short. Although the Tigers have only agreed to terms with these two notable free agents thus far, they seemed primed for more spending with owner Mike Ilitch giving General Manager Al Avila the green light. Additionally, the Tigers have been out of contention for several years and have not made the playoffs since Max Scherzer was starting games for them.
The Quiet Teams
While baseball has had its share of big spenders so far this offseason, it has also had several notable teams who look to be in contention mostly sit out the first round of free agency. This includes the Houston Astros who, outside of resigning pitcher Justin Verlander and agreeing to terms with former Phillies closer Hector Neris, have done very little in free agency thus far. This may come as a concern for Astros fans who look primed to lose star shortstop Carlos Correa one year after Gerrit Cole exited for the Yankees.
The Astros still boast a sizable payroll with many star players like Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, and Michael Brantley. Still, they have not made the kind of free agent strikes other clubs have done to improve their roster. The question is can their current team, with a few more additions, compete with the best baseball has to offer? The answer is probably yes as Houston made it to the World Series last season despite losing Cole and Verlander. But it still begs the question, how much longer can the Astros aging core contend? At some point, Houston will need to rebuild, but for now, they look to again contend next season.
Another seemingly inactive team in pre-lockout free agency was the Philadelphia Phillies. Outside of signing former Brewers’ closer Corey Knebel, they have done very little to improve their roster. Philadelphia currently has the 7th largest payroll this year, including recent free agency moves. They also had the 5th highest payroll all of last season. Despite this, the Phillies could only muster an 82-80 record while failing to qualify for the playoffs for the 10th straight year. Only the Seattle Mariners have a longer playoff drought. Even though they have been quiet so far, Phillies’ owner John Middleton and president Dave Dombrowski have said they are willing to spend more money this offseason.
The problem is despite four straight offseasons of spending over $100 million, the Phillies have missed the playoffs each season. At some point, Philadelphia will have to cut its losses and rebuild. Keep in mind that they just missed the playoffs despite an MVP season from slugger Bryce Harper. This was in addition to a runner-up Cy Young campaign from pitcher Zack Wheeler. However, for the time being, it seems the Phillies are in for one more offseason of spending. With needs in the outfield and bullpen, Philadelphia will need to be aggressive if they hope to contend once again.
One other quiet team in free agency thus far has been the New York Yankees. Surprisingly, the Bombers have only resigned pitcher Joely Rodriguez and signed infielder Jose Peraza to a minor league deal. Rumors have swirled as to the Yankee’s interest in a shortstop, outfielder, and starting pitcher. So far, they have not made any moves despite many options for shortstop help specifically having come off the board. For New York and General Manager Brian Cashman, it seems the Yankees are content on waiting until after the lockout to sign free agents.
New York has not been to the World Series since 2009 despite consistently boasting a payroll north of $200 million. But perhaps there is hope for the Bombers as shortstops Trevor Story and Carlos Correa are still available. Maybe the Yankees can even make a run at some trade targets for outfield and pitching help. Names such as Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds and Reds pitcher Luis Castillo come to mind as targets. But only time will tell how much the Yankees can accomplish in free agency.
The MLB Roundup
So far, MLB free agency has told us some teams are dead set on contention while other clubs are transitioning. Additionally, several teams that look primed to contend have decided to sit out the first round of signings. The Texas Rangers, New York Mets, Detroit Tigers, and several other clubs are spending hoards of cash hoping to contend for the playoffs, and at least in New York’s case, a World Series title. On the other hand, teams like the Houston Astros, Philadephia Phillies, and New York Yankees seem to be in neutral as they balance payrolls, aging rosters, and free agent desires with the reality of contention.
At some point, the league-wide lock-out period will end and free agency will once again resume. At that time, most of the remaining free agents will be primed to sign contracts and exit the market. The question for teams like the Rangers and Mets is will they further augment their rosters despite already spending millions? Conversely, will teams like the Astros and Phillies dip into free agency significantly in hopes of competing once again? All of these questions will be answered over the next several months, but one thing is for sure. Whichever teams make the savvy under-the-radar moves to bolster their rosters will have the best chance to compete.
Embed from Getty Images