PHOENIX – As the crisp 50-degree Arizona winters wear off and the freshly cut grass grows greener, baseball looms in the Grand Canyon State.
Most pitchers and catchers report in the next two weeks, with the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres even sooner since they open the regular season March 20 and 21 in Seoul, South Korea. Players, coaches and trainers from 15 Cactus League teams will assemble, working to solidify a competitive roster ahead of the 2024 campaign. Yet, a plethora of notable names are still available in the Major League Baseball free agency market.
Four of the top eight free agents, Blake Snell, Cody Bellinger, Jordan Montgomery and Matt Chapman, are still on the board. Notably, they’re all represented by Scott Boras, one of the most powerful agents in all of baseball.
As demonstrated by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ free agency spending spree of over $1 billion on Japanese sensations Shohei Ohtani (10 years, $700 million) and Yoshinobu Yamamoto (12 years, $325 million), the market has been outrageously demanding. It’s primarily due to the influx of teams signing young players to long-term deals.
“I think that teams see the value of young players. Look at Corbin Carroll, for example, with Arizona and how Arizona got to the World Series,” MLB insider Jon Morosi said. “It’s that two-part process. Draft and develop well, and then when it’s time to spend, you spend on the right big time superstars.”
Among the 100 or so free agent signings across the league, 34 players signed contracts for $10 million or more. While it’s unlikely that Snell, Bellinger, Montgomery and Chapman will sign a lengthy 10-to-12-year contract like Ohtani or Yamamoto, teams will still pay a hefty amount for that kind of talent.
Bryce Harper’s late-February signing with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2019 corroborates Boras’ tendency to hold out until a general manager meets his price, ensuring his clients will get the best possible offer.
However, there are times when the market won’t necessarily materialize for players who are aging, maybe even coming off a down year.
“There are other instances where occasionally the market for a player doesn’t materialize and you have to accept a one year deal and then go back after the season is over,” Morosi said. “I think even sometimes when it looks like the market is not favorable in the end, maybe you take that one year deal and then go back out in the market and find a greater deal the next year.
“I think we’re seeing that play out with Bellinger. He’ll certainly do better than he was going to do a year ago at this time when he signed with the Cubs, and then opted out because of how well he performed.”
Designated hitter market
Outside of the “Boras Four,” the market for nearly every position has been quiet. Slugging designated-hitters J.D. Martinez and Jorge Soler remain teamless despite their power numbers in 2023, where they combined for 69 home runs.
Martinez and Soler both were in talks with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but failed to come to an agreement as the Diamondbacks opted for a cheaper, left-handed bat in Joc Pederson for one year, $9.5 million.
“A lot of managers like having flexibility, and if you have an everyday DH who doesn’t necessarily play a ton in the field, it restricts what you’re able to do with the rest of your lineup and might actually reduce the ability to get the most out of the rest of your guys,” Morosi said. “And I’m sure when you look at other options, if the price (or years) comes down low enough, you can see a team involved that you didn’t expect. I think that’s where we can sometimes get surprises when we’re talking this late in the offseason.”
It’s the fourth straight one-year contract for Pederson, who mentioned a desire to restore his value during contract discussion with the Diamondbacks before hitting the free agent market next offseason. However, with outfielders Carroll, Alek Thomas, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. and Jake McCarthy, Pederson is likely to primarily don the DH role throughout the season.
“I kinda enjoy the flexibility,” Pederson told reporters on Wednesday. “I think you only get to play this game so long — it would suck to sign a long-term deal in a place that you don’t want to be, and you’re giving away years of such a small window that you either get frustrated or in a spot (where you’re) unhappy.”
Once upon a time, veterans Clayton Kershaw (Dodgers), Joey Votto (Cincinnati Reds) and Brandon Crawford (San Francisco Giants) were the face of their respective franchises. Now, they’re all past their primes and are on the search for a new home.
Votto and Crawford, who recorded a combined -1.4 WAR in 2023, were already told by the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants that a reunion is out of the question. Kershaw, despite pondering retirement over the past few seasons, has expressed mutual interest in a reunion with the Dodgers. Kershaw went 13-5 with a 2.46 ERA in 131.2 innings in 2023.
“We all hope to have Kershaw back, he is in a little different scenario this offseason. I don’t think he is quite in a rush to make his decision. I think he is enjoying his offseason,” Dodgers utilityman Chris Taylor told Dodgers Nation on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he made his decision even as the season was going on. Of course, I think everybody wants him in Dodger blue come October.”
In 2023, the Dodgers proved their need for pitching all season. Injuries to pitchers Walker Buehler, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin along with the departure of Julio Urias amid a plethora of legal allegations in September ultimately cost the Dodgers in the 2023 postseason.
“I think that the Dodgers proved even last year that when you’ve got a great team, you still often need pitching help,” Morosi said. “Look at how many different starting pitchers the Dodgers needed last year. That’s pretty good evidence of the fact that they’ll probably need Clayton Kershaw again.”
Kershaw underwent surgery in November to repair the glenohumeral ligaments and capsule in his left shoulder, stating that he is “hopeful to return to play at some point in the summer.” In addition to Los Angeles, Kershaw’s hometown Texas Rangers have shown interest.
Nonetheless, while the idea of retirement surrounds all three veterans if contracts don’t come to fruition, teams could view them as veteran presences in the clubhouses.
“It probably comes down to how badly they want to continue their careers, and do they need to get a guaranteed major league job on a 40 man roster,” Morosi said. “I’m not sure if that’s out there for Crawford or Votto, but certainly the reputation for both players is so good in the game that they’ll be able to play if they want to.”
It’s entirely possible that many of the free agents don’t sign until the start of spring training or closer to the start of the regular season. Baseball fans can only hope their favorite team has the money to sign the players they desire.
In the current state of baseball’s market, they won’t come cheap.