Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 10, 2022

MLB Races Into The Offseason

Less than 48 hours elapsed between the moment Houston Astros right fielder Kyle Tucker sprinted into foul ground to catch a fly ball off the bat of Philadelphia’s Nick Castellanos for the final out of the 2022 World Series on Saturday night, and the start of the Astros’ championship parade along Smith Street in the city’s central business district Monday afternoon.  But that brief interval was more than enough time for various media outlets to issue their first “power rankings” of franchises for the 2023 season, and for Las Vegas oddsmakers to install the L.A. Dodgers as favorites for next year’s title.  Some of the 2 million fans who turned out to cheer the Astros no doubt kept the party going long after the parade finished its 1.7-mile route, and so were probably still recovering when the general managers from all 30 clubs assembled in Las Vegas for the start of their annual three-day meeting on Tuesday.  By late Thursday afternoon, the deadline for clubs to issue qualifying offers to newly minted free agents, the first milepost on MLB’s journey through the offseason, had passed.  Congratulations Astros, but the hot stove is already lit.

This offseason will of course be very different from the last one, which didn’t officially begin until the second week in March, with contact between teams and players or their agents barred during the 99 days of the owners’ lockout.  But early indications are that the contrast will be about more than just the calendar.  For the first time in years, the list of franchises aggressively seeking to improve appears to extend beyond the usual suspects in New York and Los Angeles.

While there are many reasons for the possibility of more trades and greater interest in free agents, two stand out.  The first is the overall financial health of MLB and its franchises.  Last week, on the same day Game 3 of the World Series was rained out, commissioner Rob Manfred said in an interview with the L.A. Times that MLB’s revenues would approach $11 billion this year.  That’s close to the record high achieved in 2019 and indicates that the negative financial impact of the pandemic is now behind the sport, thanks not just to fans returning to stadiums, but also to various new media rights and sponsorship deals.  While there will always be penurious owners who happily pocket their share of the sport’s growing revenue stream while allocating as little as they can get away with to the product on the field, those skinflints are, for the moment at least, a minority.

That in turn is at least partly due to the expanded playoffs, which make dreams of postseason glory seem that much more in reach.  It is a balancing act, one that if overdone could easily turn the longest season into little more than a six-month grind for seeding.  But with a dozen clubs qualifying, the Phillies were able to overcome a dreadful start to the campaign and clinch a Wild Card spot with a win in game number 160.  Philadelphia then made the most of its first trip to the postseason in more than a decade.  The expanded bracket also kept hope alive for the Brewers, Giants, White Sox, and the upstart Orioles, long after those clubs would have been reduced to playing for pride in previous seasons.  Add those teams to the franchises that made the playoffs, toss into the mix a front office or two with something to prove after not getting the expected return from roster moves made in the rush of the last, highly compressed, offseason – the Rangers and Twins come to mind – and there is a healthy complement of clubs for which a place in next year’s bracket seems eminently attainable.

Those clubs, and perhaps a surprise franchise, because there is always a surprise franchise, will comprise the marketplace for a strong free agent class.  This year’s group is led by American League home run king Aaron Judge, who won his own version of this week’s super-rich Powerball drawing when he bet on himself and rejected the Yankees $213.5 million contract offer just before Opening Day.  Now, after surpassing Babe Ruth and Roger Maris and just missing out on a Triple Crown, Judge, through his agent Page Odle, is likely to set a starting price at least $100 million higher for his athletic services over the next seven or eight years.

The Bronx isn’t the only New York borough in danger of losing a cornerstone of its local team.  Jacob deGrom, the Great Game’s dominant hurler when healthy, has, as expected, opted out of the final year of his deal with the Mets.  Those two players are joined by an entire infield’s worth of elite shortstops, a list that includes Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson.

While those big names will almost certainly all be very well compensated ballplayers by the time Spring Training opens, the real test of an offseason is in how lesser free agents fare.  This is the group that bore the brunt of the wholesale shift among franchises away from long-term contracts under the previous Collective Bargaining Agreement.  Efforts by the Players Association to change the basic qualifications for free agency were stonewalled by owners throughout last winter’s bitter negotiations.  Not many 32-year-old midlevel players will be signing contracts that will run until they are approaching 40.  But while the length of contracts will likely continue to be shorter than in the past, the annual salaries of the deals such players ink could once again be on the rise.  GMs without the seemingly unlimited budgets of the Mets or Dodgers, or a large amount of room under the first luxury tax threshold like the Giants, will pay to add what their analytics department assures them is the key missing piece keeping the franchise from a season-ending parade of its own. 

Across the country, fans hoping to celebrate this time next year the way 2 million did in Houston this week, will be watching through the coming weeks and months, hoping for news that their franchise has moved one step closer to glory.  The only certainty is that one shouldn’t put too much stock in those early power rankings.  There is just too much that could happen, for good or ill, to every franchise, even before next March 30, when it’s once again time to play ball.  For now, just light the kindling. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: