Baseball season is finally here! It is Monday, 12 February and the first pitchers and catchers (Mets and Pirates) will report today for Spring training. For me this day signals the end of the long dark winter and the baseball offseason. This is where Spring Training (the baseball pre-season) starts and as always hope springs eternal in the days of Spring. It is a time of year where fans have questions that will hopefully be answered to some extent during Spring Training. Questions like, what will the starting rotation look like, who will be starting in the outfield on Opening Day, how will our new free agent signings fit in, will our rookies live up to the hype and what will our revamped bullpen look like? Spring Training will bring some answers, but some questions will remain unanswered well into the regular season.
Fans are almost always excited at this time of the year as clubs position themselves for a run at the playoffs (most clubs at least). Some fans (Dodgers, Astros, Indians, Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs and Nationals) expect to be in the postseason this year, whilst others can only dream of an unlikely run to a playoff berth. Some fans (Tigers, White Sox, Rays, Phillies, Braves, Marlins, Reds, Pirates and Padres) enter Spring this year knowing they have to endure a painful rebuilding phase (which means losing a lot of games in the short term) as their ownership promises success in the future as their clubs rebuilds their rosters. Even fans of rebuilding clubs may be excited to see how their club’s youth will develop and perform. At the very least everyone should be jumping with joy as baseball is back.
As Spring Training opens, all the baseball talk is centered around the slow offseason. Clubs have spent very little money on free agents this winter and many top quality free agents, such as Jake Arrieta, JD Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Alex Cobb, Carlos Gomez, Logan Morrison and Mike Moustakas remain unsigned as pitchers and catchers start reporting today. It has even lead to some noticeable tension between MLB and the Players’ Association and at one stage there was talk of players going on strike during Spring Training. There’s a variety of reasons for the lack of spending on Free Agents. David Schoenfield wrote a good article on ESPN about the reasons why it has been such a slow offseason. Some of his reasons include:
1. The 2018 Free Agent class is just not that great
2. The 2019 Free Agent class will be one of the best in recent history
3. The collective bargaining agreement discourages clubs from exceeding certain thresholds in payroll. For 2018, that threshold is $197 million in payroll. If a club exceeds this threshold then they pay a luxury tax.
4. Traditional big spenders, the Yankees and the Dodgers have not spent much at all. Mainly due to reasons 2 and 3 above.
5. Front offices are becoming smarter as they apply more analytics and this is making them more conservative. You just don’t see many long term contracts being dished out to 30+ year old free agents. Offers have been made to these free agents, but they have been rejecting the offers. There seems to be a definite gap between what the players think they’re worth versus what the clubs think the players are worth.
6. Some teams are rebuilding and this reduces the demand for free agents. Some people in baseball have been very unhappy with this and have gone as far as saying that more teams are competing for the Number 1 draft pick than the playoffs. MLB needs to look at the incentives clubs get for winning (and losing) and address this situation. Too many rebuilding clubs at the same time is not good for baseball.
7. Young players are getting better at a younger age than before. This means clubs are more likely to give young players a chance than risk big contracts on aging free agents.
The big question coming into Spring Training this year is how many of these free agents will be signed before Opening Day? It remains to be seen. In the meantime though, lets soak in the sun and enjoy the sounds of baseball.