Thursday, December 13, 2018

Visiting Column #3 -- Accelerating the Off-Season

Earlier today, I happened to come across a few articles bemoaning the rather dull Winter Meetings by Major League Baseball.  There has been a signing or two, and a couple minor trades, but when the Meetings are advertised as the place "where things happen", and the press piles into whatever hotel is the headquarters to follow what is happening -- but nothing happens, it's a downer.

The reasons are several, but I can point to one, and his initials are Scott Boras.  And I have a solution at the end of this piece.

Scott Boras, of course, is a sports agent, meaning that he negotiates contracts on behalf of his clients, which for this piece's purposes are major-league baseball players.  Keep that in mind.

With the World Series ending by about November 1st, and Spring Training beginning in mid-February, that's about three and a half months for free agents to figure out where they are going to play when the following Spring Training begins.  Typically, there are a few dozen free agents in a given season, and only a handful, 4-5 at most, are primo players.

The annual dance, of course, is between the teams with needs at certain positions, and the players who play those positions.  The teams want the players they covet, and the players are trying to get the most money.

Of course, there are risks on both sides.  If you are a very good, but not "primo", player, the teams needing you may be waiting to see if they can first sign the primo player at your position.  Then if the primo player signs elsewhere, you want to make sure you get a job, and the teams which missed out on the primo guy want to make sure they get a very good player.  So there are risks on each side, and neither has a sense of control.

If that was almost clear, you will understand when I say that the fates of most free agents, and the rosters of most teams, are all waiting on one thing -- the signing of the primo players.  If that were to happen early in the off-season, then all the other dominoes could fall neatly, players would know where they're going, and teams would know their rosters.

But for the most part, it does not happen in the off-season, despite the extended tumult the delay causes.  And that goes back to the agent who is never in a hurry to get his player clients signed.  That would be Scott Boras.

Now in fairness, Boras is doing his job, which is to get the most money for his clients and the highest commissions for himself.  To do that, he drags the negotiations out with multiple teams -- and we're talking about his primo clients here -- to where Boras clients often don't sign until January or February.

While that shouldn't matter, it does.  The delay in signing primo Boras clients drives the market for all the other players at those positions, whose salary offers are frequently linked to the relative value of the contracts of the primo players at their positions.  Now, a few smart, non-Boras free agents sign early in the season, to make sure they have a job.  They may not quite get the contract they wanted, but they have more choice of teams, and know where they're going to play long before Spring Training.

So the Boras delay tactic has only one salutary effect, and that is for a very few players -- his top ones -- and, of course, for Boras.  The hope on his part is that the passage of time may add more teams into the mix and drive up prices.

The negatives?  Lots.  The other players, particularly the very good, next-tier free agents, have to wait until Boras's primo clients sign, because their best market will be with the teams that fail to sign the top Boras client at their position.  They hate that, because either they wait, or they take less to sign earlier in order to ensure they have a job where they'd prefer to be.

The teams hate the Boras delay as well.  All of them do.  They want to plan; they want roster certainty and they want cost predictability.

And so, as we get to the Winter Meetings in mid-December each year, little ends up happening.  For example, this year, the now-former Washington outfielder, Bryce Harper, is a Boras client.  He is not signing anytime soon, and that is delaying the signing of Manny Machado, a shortstop whose agent wants him to get a bigger contract than Harper, and so is waiting on that move.

Teams needing an outfielder or a shortstop, with the revenues to pay a big salary, will make a far different decision if they sign one of the two, versus what they do if they lose out to another team.  And if Harper doesn't sign until, say, February 1, there are a bunch of teams not knowing who their outfielders will be, and others not knowing who their shortstop will be.  The "losing teams" end up having to scramble, while the other free agents at those positions can't make life plans until right before Spring Training.

So ... this is, of course, a problem, in everyone's eyes except those of Scott Boras.

Well, Major League Baseball owes Boras nothing, and therefore should feel free to take action that will make this situation a whole lot better for all teams and for most players.  And there is, of course, an answer.

I propose that no contract for any player, with an average annual value above $2 million may be signed between January 1st and the date of the first regular season game.

Think about it.

All free agents of decent quality will obviously be paid more than $2 million a year.  So in order to be available to start the season, they need to sign a contract before January 1st.  The teams gain roster certainty comfortably in advance of Spring Training, and the players all know, pretty much, where they will be playing.  And, of course, the Winter Meetings would be a deserved center of offseason attention.

More importantly, November and December provide plenty of time for the negotiations that need to take place -- instead of everyone stalling and goofing around, as soon as the World Series is over, the negotiations can start.  Any linkage between what one player makes and another player's offer is clear earlier in the offseason.

And -- there will be immense pressure on the very few primo free agents to sign early enough to leave time before January 1st for teams that don't sign them to deal with the remaining free agents at the positions of need.  I'd be certain that if that rule were in place now, and Machado or Harper waited until December 31st to sign, he'd be taking beanballs every other game.  The players take care of their own, you know.

We have problems, we have solutions.  Comments are welcomed below.

Copyright 2018 by Robert Sutton
Like what you read here?  There are over 1,000 posts from Bob at, and after four years of writing a new one daily, he still posts thoughts once in a while as "visiting columns", no longer the "prolific essayist" he was through 2018, but still around.  Appearance, advertising, sponsorship and interview inquiries cheerfully welcomed at or on Twitter at @rmosutton


  1. I'd have to agree with you on this. No one would be hurt by this except for an agent (or player) wanting to play out the market to maximize his player's offers. But that isn't even guaranteed, look at JD Martinez just this past year. This will actually help the bulk of players.

    Maybe you want to add in that December 1st is the last day for any contracts over $15 million AAV, January 1st is the last day for any contracts over $2M AAV. That would do what you're trying to accomplish.

  2. You need to send this piece to every MLB writer out there who complains about the slow pace of the offseason. No downside to this idea.