What just happened?! Takeaways from a wild start to MLB free agency

Baseball

When MLB free agency began, as I was comparing notes with agents and executives, a popular discussion was how many players would sign big deals before the collective bargaining agreement expired on Dec. 1. The common opinion was that only a couple of guys would sign for $75 million or more — and some legitimately thought zero would. They also expected slower-than-usual overall volume.

All of that turned out to be … wildly wrong!

Now we’re in the midst of a lockout that will likely freeze the market for months, but before Dec. 1, we had tons of action to a degree that no one expected. Over the course of about three weeks, teams handed out 51 MLB deals with guaranteed money totaling $1.974 billion. If you include extensions occurring in the 2021 calendar year, another $1.655 billion was spent, and nearly $1.1 billion of that went to five players: Byron Buxton, Wander Franco, Jose Berrios, Francisco Lindor and Fernando Tatis Jr. Let’s go on a journey of the lessons learned from this incredibly entertaining and active first part of the offseason.

The Mets went hard.
The 2021 season didn’t go that well for the New York Mets, who ended the season in third place in the National League East with 77 wins and watched the Atlanta Braves win the World Series. But since the clock turned to November, things have turned around. Robinson Cano‘s season-long suspension ended, Jacob deGrom should be healthy by the time the season starts, and they added Max Scherzer ($130 million guaranteed), Starling Marte ($78 million), Mark Canha ($26.5 million) and Eduardo Escobar ($20 million) in free agency. With these additions, FanGraphs’ depth charts now have the Mets in a dead heat with the best teams in baseball. The Mets, a team that posted 34.6 WAR in 2021, are projected to post 48.0 in 2022 — behind (and just slightly) only the Dodgers and Yankees.

Now the Mets have a mostly complete roster (and the highest payroll in baseball), while other teams obviously don’t and have a while to get caught up before games start. It hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows: The Mets notably lost out on the bidding for former Met Steven Matz (Cardinals) and lost free agents Javier Baez (Tigers), Noah Syndergaard (Angels), Aaron Loup (also Angels) and Marcus Stroman (Cubs). But being in a virtual tie on talent and tops in payroll is something Mets fans haven’t been able to do at any random point in years, so it’s good to celebrate what you have.

So did the Rangers.
The Texas Rangers have been privately planning and telling the industry that they want to take a big step forward in 2022 and compete for a playoff spot in 2023. They lost 102 games in 2021 and, going into the offseason, their projected best player per Steamer projections for 2022 (top prospect Josh Jung) had played a total of zero games in the big leagues.

Now, even more so than the Mets, the Rangers have spent a bunch of money and got a lot better. Corey Seager ($325 million guaranteed) and Marcus Semien ($175 million) will make the most expensive — and probably best — double-play combination in the American League. Jon Gray ($56 million) was a popular buy-low free agent because he’s pitched in Colorado his entire career.

The issue remains that after over half a billion dollars spent, the Rangers now have three new best players — but the same rest of the roster behind them. This ain’t the NBA, where that’s all you need to change your postseason outcome. Using the same FG depth charts that summed up the Mets’ situation, the Rangers are the 23rd-best team in baseball on paper, projected for 32.1 WAR (versus the 16.6 they posted in 2021). That’s a huge improvement, but it’s not enough to sniff even the potential expanded playoffs. In the end, it’s still just improvement at three of the 26 spots on the Opening Day roster. In the post-CBA world, watching the next moves for the Rangers will be fascinating: How all-in are they really going?

But not much spending from top contenders … yet.
While the Mets, Rangers, Blue Jays, Tigers, Mariners and even Rays handed out nine-figure deals, they were the only ones to do so; the Dodgers, Red Sox and Yankees stayed out of the mix. The Dodgers gave utilityman Chris Taylor a four-year, $60 million deal, but the next-biggest deal handed out by that trio of clubs was a one-year, $10 million contract the Red Sox gave to James Paxton, who was coming off of a season in which he threw just 1⅓ innings. The Dodgers lost Scherzer and Seager, while the Red Sox lost Eduardo Rodriguez, and the Yankees seem to be in the market for a shortstop, so I would expect action from this group after the new CBA is signed.

What we got right — and wrong.
Motivated bidders acting early in the free-agency period are normally the teams that create the biggest gaps between expected and actual contracts — and that’s exactly what happened this year. The Seager, Semien and Scherzer deals (all negotiated by Scott Boras with eager-to-improve clubs) were my biggest misses, if you toss out when I got too cute and tried to guess Baez being the best player who had to settle for a one-year deal. Baez’s market was surprising on its own, with a couple of teams reportedly offering nine-figure deals (a fact that a number of executives still insist to me that they didn’t think any team would or should).

Beyond those four deals, the only real surprise was the sheer amount of business done before the Dec. 1 deadline. There weren’t really any huge shifts in the market –. Kevin Gausman, Robbie Ray, and Marte got the next-biggest deals for roughly what was expected. Rodriguez, Taylor and Matz got a year more than many guessed, and Stroman got a more creative structure than expected.

So … what now?
Carlos Correa seems sure to get that last giant deal for a shortstop, and Freddie Freeman will get the best-hitter-on-the-board big payday. Beyond those two, the likes of Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, Michael Conforto and Kyle Schwarber will compete with Trevor Story for the next-biggest deal for a position player, and one of them will probably get squeezed to settle for a below-expectations deal. (Story and his throwing issues might end up being the real candidate to settle for a one-year deal.)

In the second half of free agency, as the money dries up and motivated bidders cross off items on their shopping lists, I think we’ll see fewer “Oh, he got a year more than I expected” reactions and a good deal more “Oh, he only got that?” When I checked in with some agents during this spending spree, expecting to hear glee, the majority of them believed that the owners front-loaded their big contracts before the lockout to combat the MLBPA’s argument about clubs pocketing revenues and being anticompetitive. These agents believe that teams will go back to being tighter with spending when the CBA is ratified — which is a trend that almost always happens in the back end of the winter, anyway.

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