With 2019 a little more than a week away, the Yankees have had a fairly active offseason so far. They brought back Brett Gardner and CC Sabathia, traded for James Paxton, then re-signed J.A. Happ to round out the rotation. The Yankees came into the winter needing three starters and they’ve already added those three starters. Now they need a Didi Gregorius replacement and some bullpen help.
Although the Yankees have been busy, the rest of baseball hasn’t, and free agent spending is down once again. There have been a lot of trades — you can thank for Mariners for that — but not many free agent signings. Travis Sawchik ran the numbers earlier this week and here’s what he came up with for free agent spending in the first 50 days of the offseason (through Monday this year) the last few years:
- 2014-15 offseason: 7.8% of free agents signed and $1.173 billion in signings
- 2015-16 offseason: 9.2% and $1.401 billion
- 2016-17 offseason: 9.2% and $976.5 million
- 2017-18 offseason: 5.5% and $469.8 million
- 2018-19 offseason: 5.2% and $442.5 million
Through the first 50 days of the winter, free agent spending has more or less been cut in half the last three years, and cut even moreso when you go back three years. Teams are not spending money and there are many reasons for that. Chief among them are the luxury tax threshold becoming an unofficial salary cap and roughly one-third of the league not even pretending to be competitive. There are more reasons not to spend than reasons to spend these days.
Chatter about last winter’s slow free agent market being an anomaly never made much sense to me. The luxury tax penalties weren’t going to change and — this is the big one — not spending worked! Teams waited out free agents and they landed some great value buys late in the winter. Free agents like Todd Frazier, Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez, and Jake Arrieta didn’t sign until February last year. And, aside from Hosmer, they all received less than expected.
The Yankees were among the teams to grab a quality free agent late in the offseason last year. They inked Neil Walker to a one-year deal worth $4M on March 12th — remember, Walker was coming off a .265/.362/.439 (115 wRC+) batting line with +2.2 WAR for the Mets and Brewers — and while that didn’t work out as hoped because he struggled transitioning to a utility role, the idea was sound. Get a good player at a much lower than expected price.
Freezing out free agents worked out quite well for the teams as a whole last offseason so of course they were going to it again this winter. The numbers don’t lie. Free agent spending is down this offseason compared to the same point last offseason. In all likelihood, that means there again will be bargains to be had in February. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, guys like that, they’ll be fine. It’s the second and third and fourth tier free agents who are in trouble.
And, when those second and third and fourth tier free agents are still seeking work as Spring Training begins, the Yankees will again be in position to pounce. There are a lot of second base types and middle relievers sitting in free agency right now — I assume the top relievers will be off the board long before camp opens — and undoubtedly some will be looking for work in February. That was the case last year and we’re trending in that direction again.
While waiting is justifiable, my preference would be for the Yankees to address their needs now rather than sit back and see who’s still on the market when pitchers and catchers start to report. I think that February/March bargain shopping should be the icing on the offseason cake. Address your needs over the winter, then see if there’s anything that makes sense to top off the roster as Spring Training opens, you know? That’s how I’d approach it.
Walker may not have worked out as hoped this season but that doesn’t mean the Yankees should stop looking at late offseason bargains. In this free agent climate, patience is rewarded, and waiting things out seems to be a viable strategy. You’re not getting a David Robertson or Adam Ottavino that way, but Cody Allen or rehabbing Kelvin Herrera? Jed Lowrie or Josh Harrison? I could see them sitting out there late in the offseason looking for work.
Hopefully the Yankees address their middle infield and bullpen needs over these next few weeks and can go into Spring Training knowing the roster is set. If there’s a free agent out there who makes sense on a cheap contract, great, pick him up. If not, well, no big deal because the roster’s already in place. The free agent market is moving slowly right now, and the longer this continues, the more likely it is the Yankees can land a bargain in a few weeks.