The last two winters, the hot stove never got much warmer than Minnesota in February, with news of free agent signings and trades trickling in slowly over several months and culminating with numerous top free agents not signing until June. This year has played out differently, as the top three free agents — Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, and Anthony Rendon — signed during the Winter Meetings and for more money than anticipated.
Anecdotally, even free agents beyond the top tier appear to have done well, with intense bidding wars popping up for the likes of Zack Wheeler, Hyun-jin Ryu, and Dallas Keuchel, among others. However, has the offseason really been as active as it’s seemed? Does the reality match up with the perception?
Of course, to begin, we must answer the question, “What does it mean for an offseason to be active?” Generally speaking, we tend to view an offseason as active if it involves battles for free agents and teams across the league striving to get better. Considering both of these would be reflected in team salaries, that’s where we’re going to start.
Unfortunately, despite the perception, average team payroll has gone down so far, from $138MM to about $124MM, a drop of $14MM. While, obviously, this does not reflect a full offseason — Josh Donaldson, MLB Trade Rumors’ fifth-best free agent, will increase a team’s payroll by at least $20MM, for example — a closer look at the data reveals some troubling trends:
There has been only a very slight correlation between team success in 2019 and current payroll so far this winter. In fact, only seven teams — the Yankees, Astros, Angels, Phillies, Mets, Padres and White Sox — have seen their payrolls rise. Meanwhile, the Red Sox, Cubs, and Rockies may continue to cut salary by trading away highly-paid players like Mookie Betts, David Price, Kris Bryant, and Nolan Arenado, and the Marlins and Orioles have no incentives to increase their minimal salary requirements ($35M and $44M, respectively).
When we look at the data on free agents, however, a different trend seems to arise. As of now, the average free agent contract of the top 50 free agents (as ranked by MLB Trade Rumors) signed during the winter has changed from $32.9M over 2.16 years last year to $33.99M over 1.84 years (Note: the salaries of players who either signed in the middle of the offseason or have so far remained unsigned have been listed as $0/0 years). Despite the decline in payroll, free agents salaries have to some extent increased slightly. Teams do not seem afraid to offer contracts — so long as they can clear salary room, that is.
Despite the swirling excitement of the Winter Meetings and the numerous free agents that have signed rapidly and earlier than the last two years, the offseason probably hasn’t been quite as earth-shaking as it has seemed. The best free agents appear to be getting paid, but that comes against a backdrop of teams still finding a way to decrease salaries overall. For most of the league, cutting payroll has continued to be the modus operandi.