It’s a complicated time in baseball. Last year’s deep freeze of free agency seems to have wrapped its tendrils at least partially around this current class, and of course the two biggest names on the market are still on the market. Meanwhile, teams have already seemingly sorted themselves into Competitors and Not-Competitors, meaning the demand for impact free agents is lessened.
And then there’s the behavior of the New York Yankees, one of those teams sorted into Competitors. So far, the Yankees have traded for a player with ace potential, retained a reliever and signed a utility player that has never been a utility player in his career.
The team was also rumored to be in on both Patrick Corbin and Manny Machado, but never made a formal offer to the former and appear to have not done so with the latter. Oh, they rolled out the red carpet for both, famously Photoshopping Corbin into Yankee pinstripes and taking Machado out to dinner - no report yet on whether the bill was split.
When it came time to extend offers, though, neither free agent received one. We now know that the Yankees’ internal valuation of Corbin wasn’t close to the market value of the pitcher’s deal, and it seems they’re in a similar position with regards to Machado. In the end, the camps are so far apart that there’s no real point in submitting a lowball offer.
This kind of public demonstration matched with private disinterest isn’t serving the Yankees well in the long run. Future entrants into a marketplace do well when they see and remember the signals sent by buyers, and more importantly, prospective buyers. A team like the Nationals, known for their creativity in contract structure and willingness to spend, is probably a more attractive option for a seller than a team that can’t even make competitive offers.
This means that it’s entirely possible future free agents are taking the Yankees less seriously than other teams. Members of the 2020 class would see the fact that the team isn’t offering close to market value for contracts, so why bother to waste their time?
Let’s take, as an example, the crown jewels of next year’s free agent classes: Chris Sale and Nolan Arenado. The market for Sale is just about every team in baseball - nobody doesn’t need a left handed ace, but for this particular example let’s highlight the Houston Astros, who will have a hole in their own rotation with Justin Verlander’s free agency. For Arenado, the market isn’t quite as broad, but the Yankees might decide they want to dabble in his services. The Nationals will also have an opening at third, getting to pick between retaining Anthony Rendon or chasing Arenado.
Now let’s say you’re Nolan Arenado, fielding offers from teams. Are you going to be more open to meetings with teams that have historically spent, and done the legwork to build creative contracts, or gravitate toward the team that, in recent history hasn’t ponied up to what the market will bear?
Therein lies the problem with waiting until the next free agent class, which has been and continues to be the mantra of so many fans. Wait until next year, when XYZ player is available, and go all out then. By the time that market opens up, sellers have received the signal that there’s one less serious buyer.
Whether the Yankees sign Machado or not, they’re going to be really good in 2019. If they didn’t feel Corbin was worth the contract the Nats agreed to, that’s fine. The problem is when the Yankees consistently price themselves out of the market, year after year. Agents aren’t stupid, they’re seeing that the Yankees have less and less interest in making competitive offers. That drastically changes the dynamic for the next free agent class, the one the team’s supposed to be saving up for.