Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 10, 2021

Another Cold Winter For The Great Game

As has become depressingly common in recent winters, the Great Game’s hot stove season has been a laughable misnomer. The pilot light on that appliance appears to have gone out, with most teams doing little to shape next season’s rosters and certainly not making the kinds of moves that would spark debate among the franchise’s paying customers. Fewer than one in seven of the more than three hundred free agents have been signed to new contracts, and almost all the deals that have been struck have been for very short terms – one or at most two years. The dearth of activity is true throughout the ranks of available players. CBS Sports, one of several outlets that ranks free agents, shows just ten of its top sixty players committed to teams for 2021.

Almost every front office ascribes the lack of activity to the financial losses sustained during the truncated 2020 season, compounded by continuing uncertainty about the length and accessibility of this year’s campaign. A mere sixty games last season, all played without fans in the stands, and no sure path to a full set of contests with real people instead of cardboard cutouts in the seats this year, add up to a necessary belt-tightening. But both elements of that rationale are flawed.

The problem with the first claim is the same as is always the case when the billionaires who own MLB’s teams plead poverty – their expectation is that players, the media, and fans will all simply take their word for it. Except for the Atlanta franchise, which is owned by a publicly traded subsidiary of Liberty Media Corporation, major league clubs are privately held, and owners have steadfastly refused to open their books. Common sense says that like franchises in every major sports league, baseball teams took a huge financial bath playing in a pandemic without ticket or concession sales. But exactly how bad the losses were, and what any team’s balance sheet looked like when Spring Training suddenly stopped last March 12th, remain mysteries.

There’s no question that how and when the 2021 season will unfold is uncertain. While the slow and unsteady rollout of vaccines promises an eventual return to something akin to normal, right now the COVID-19 pandemic is far more serious than when preparations for last season were suspended nearly ten months ago. A quick check with a devoted follower of any NBA squad will confirm that harsh reality. But with the reporting date for pitchers and catchers now just five weeks away, it’s long past time to inject some certainty into the process. The Players Association, naturally ever protective of its members bank accounts, keeps saying that an on-time start to both Spring Training and the regular season is expected. Yet multiple reports indicate that many owners favor postponing the season until at least May. One would think both sides learned from last year’s bitter negotiations over restarting play that baseball is not well served by a brass knuckle battle between management and labor. But with the current Collective Bargaining Agreement in its final year and trust between the two sides perilously low, the idea of a mutual and proactive effort to establish parameters for this season is probably wishful thinking.

However, the greatest flaw with the company line being parroted by almost every front office is the one crucial word, “almost.” That’s a good thing in general of course, since collusion is not something to be encouraged. But in this specific case fans can thank the New York Mets and San Diego Padres for exposing the rationale offered up by most other franchises as little more than a convenient excuse for shutting their checkbooks.

One of the very few multi-year free agent deals to date was the four-year, $40.6 million dollar agreement between the Mets and catcher James McCann, formerly of the White Sox. An All-Star in 2019 and solid defensively, over the last two seasons McCann ranks third in batting average and fourth in OPS among all major league catchers. New York committed to that contract in mid-December, then just this week agreed to trade two part-time major leaguers and a pair of minor league prospects to Cleveland for shortstop Francisco Lindor and pitcher Carlos Carrasco. Lindor is a four-time All-Star and Carrasco led the AL in wins in 2017, then won Comeback Player of the Year honors in 2019 after overcoming leukemia. More to the point, he’s owed $38 million over the three remaining years of his contract, and Lindor, in his final arbitration season, will surely make more than $20 million.

Out west, Padres GM A.J. Preller wrapped up trades with the Rays and Cubs that brought a pair of high-priced pitchers to San Diego. Blake Snell, winner of the AL Cy Young Award in 2018 when he led the league in wins and ERA, and Yu Darvish, runner-up for the same hardware in the NL last season, are due a combined $100 million over the next three years. They join a Padres club that committed $330 million to Manny Machado before the 2019 season and will certainly try to lock in budding superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. to a long-term deal very soon.

Meanwhile DJ LeMahieu, George Springer, Trevor Bauer, and J.T. Realmuto, along with more than two hundred lesser-known players, all remain unsigned, because franchises are in such parlous financial condition or can’t predict whether or when baseball will be played this year. Or so fans are asked to believe. Perhaps the front offices in Queens and San Diego didn’t get the memo. More likely though, the answer lies in how ESPN’s Jeff Passan characterized the Mets and Padres – as two teams that are actually trying to win. As much as one might think that’s the whole point of fielding a team, it’s looking quite rare this year.

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