The MLB Free Agent Market, and Ways the Pirates Could Play It

Did you ever fully expect something to happen, then as you watch it unfold you somehow still sit there with your jaw open wondering what’s going on? That’s me right now watching teams all over MLB start the process of trimming the fat. And fat probably isn’t the best word, because these aren’t garbage players being dropped, these are expensive players and it’s changing the landscape of MLB’s free agent crop before our very eyes.

The funny thing is, you couldn’t pick a worse year to be a free agent, for anybody, even Trevor Bauer, this season’s top free agent, at least right now. Oh, he’ll still get paid, and probably very well, but he isn’t going to come close to what Gerrit Cole got last year. I don’t think he’d have reached that territory anyway but with all the crying poor MLB is doing right now, who is going to step up and offer someone 250 Million dollars over ten years?

Here are the factors we all know about. First we have the COVID situation, and your personal feeling on lockdowns and fans in the stands means very little. We simply don’t know how baseball or any sport is going to handle it moving forward, let alone how fans will feel about packing a stadium again. For instance, I personally would go right now, but my wife for instance would have to not go back to work for two weeks if I did. The question is cloudy at best and nothing frightens executives more than uncertainty. It’s the same reason you always see the stock market drop prior to an election, it doesn’t matter who they think is going to win as much as not knowing who is going to win.

Next you have the already damning financial losses experienced from 2020. I can’t tell you how much faith to put in the numbers Rob Manfred put forward. They claim to have collectively taken on 8.3 Billion in debt and will post between 2.8 and 3.0 Billion dollars in operational losses. They’ve even been starting to murmur about “economic systemic changes” which is a flowery way to say salary cap. (floor comes too, so leave it out of your comment) Even if this doesn’t lead to big time changes like that, the losses are probably very real, and more importantly, very real to the teams that pack their house all the time and by the way, tend to pay the bills for the league.

I’m sure there are other factors that will affect this free agent crop but the last one I’m going to touch on is this, the new CBA. It expires after this season and if you watched the restart negotiations earlier this year it’s easy to see how contentious they could be. Toss onto this bonfire what is going to completely resemble collusion by owners to keep salaries down and you’ve got all the makings for a league that could be headed for a lengthy work stoppage.

You take all the factors there and it starts to resemble the Day After Tomorrow scenario of a perfect storm. How each team handles it will very much so depend on where they are and what they could do with it.

For instance, the Cardinals have opened most recent seasons with a payroll around 160 Million, right now they sit right above 100 million and might plan to sit right there. Don’t get me wrong, as a Pirates fan, I’m still left envious but think bigger. Think of the potential that 60 Million in spending power comes out of the collective pie. They aren’t alone, almost every team has stated that decreasing payroll even if only marginally makes sense if not the outright goal.

Supply and demand are two linchpins in the sales world and when you think of free agents as a commodity, it’s easy to see why more than ever flooding the market in a time when teams have less money to spend than any in recent history could lead to some incredible deals.

This is where the Pirates could step in.

Before I get too deep, the Pirates have already joined the chorus singing the song of needing to cut payroll a bit. But the Pirates already have mechanisms to get that done, by letting Keone Kela walk along with Dereck Holland and potentially passing on the option for Chris Archer the Bucs stand to save 16 million from an already league low payroll. Sure they have a ton of arbitration eligible players and that will eat into those savings but suffice to say, the payroll is going to trend down if they simply do nothing but exercise the buy out on Archer.

I’m thinking some free agents are going to go starved for offers and even if they get them, they could be short to at least eliminate some of the variables. The Pirates usually dumpster dive on the market, bringing in players like Evans, Riddle, and the like, but this year, they could possibly woo a more impactful player by simply offering years.

I’m not advocating this signing but lets use Masahiro Tanaka as an example. Here’s a guy who made 23 Million last season and is 32 years old. He’s clearly lost some zip on his fastball but is still fairly effective. In a typical year you could expect him to probably take a bit of a pay cut, maybe in the 16-18 range for a season or two. This season I don’t think he’ll touch even that. What if you offered him 14AAV for 4 or 5 seasons?

How about a reliever, Jeremy Jeffress is just coming off making 850K and many prognosticators have him getting a contract in excess of 7 Million. I don’t see it. What if a team like the Pirates swooped in with their incredibly low payroll and offered 5 AAV for 4 years? This would still most likely allow them to lower payroll but they get a real piece and he gets paid close to what will be in the market for a few years.

The Pirates are not in an enviable position, they were the worst team in baseball last year and if the players who could make a difference play to their 2020 level again, that won’t change. But they’re building under the surface and buying a quality player, relatively on the cheap, on a deal that takes them into their projected window might be a really smart play.

Guys who might not even take the meeting in a normal off season may be a bit more willing to listen right now and the Pirates could potentially buy themselves a cornerstone rather than waiting for the development and drafting changes to take hold.

George Springer made a little over 21 Million in 2020 (all these numbers are of course pro-rated) and again, many project him to get upwards of 24 AAV. He has a bit of an injury history, and of course the cheating stuff will follow him a bit. But if the market is as slow as I think it might be, Springer might have to settle for 18-20 Million. Now it might be smart for him to take a one year deal and bet on himself and the overall health of the game to improve as well but players are worried about a work stoppage too. At 31 years old, a five year deal would fit perfectly into the Pirates plan and give them a star they can plug right into the heart of the order. I’d have to imagine people suddenly start throwing Bell strikes if Springer is batting behind him.

Even if it made the payroll increase, and it most certainly would, an opportunity to even have him entertain a conversation with Pittsburgh may not come up again. By the time a deal like this would expire he’s 36 and if you want him for another year or two the spend won’t be nearly as bad, or you move him for prospects to keep the train rolling.

I can’t say I expect the Pirates to pursue this train of thought, but it could kill multiple birds with one stone. First, it makes the team better, now and later. Second, it sends a signal to the fans and for that matter the league that the Pirates are open for business and things are changing here. Finally, it gives them something they simply don’t have, a cornerstone offensive talent that isn’t actively being developed.

I don’t see many fans disagreeing with this, but I do definitely understand thinking it won’t happen. Part of me didn’t want to write this piece for that very reason, I sincerely doubt it will happen. But this off season is so unique, it would be a shame to let it slip by without at least considering all possible angles, all paths available to them.

Hell, it would almost make them look smart for carrying such a pitiful payroll last season.

What do you think? Should the Pirates try to jumpstart the rebuild or focus on doing everything internally? And keep in mind, once this perfect storm passes, it could possibly never happen again.

Published by Gary Morgan

Former contributor for Inside the Pirates an SI Team Channel

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