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The wait and see game that big markets prioritized

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The Yankees were never spending big pre-lockout.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

In a time of conflict and a difference of opinions and goals from the players association with the team owners, there’s a parallel to trace when it comes to transactions pre-lockout and post-lockout.

It is well-established that one of the biggest, although not the only factor for the majority of free agents who signed before the lockout, was their lack of comfort in spending a significant period of the offseason not knowing in which city they will play next. There’s an oversimplification to that theory and there are many factors in play with any given athlete, however it’s relevancy can’t be ignored.

When it comes to team strategies it’s a whole different ball game. At any given time a free agent is just looking to sign the best possible deal and that’s unlikely to change, the most that could happen is that a small group actively chooses to wait for a better market with improved conditions for teams to spend with the new CBA, but we haven’t heard much in terms of that. There is a very clear picture of what’s happened in the market from the team’s perspective.

The Yankees are one team in particular who’ve received plenty of criticism from their fanbase and elsewhere. The team stayed quiet before December 1st and, although nothing is definite, there have been reports about an unwillingness to spend hundreds of millions for one of the elite shortstops that were available this year and instead mostly focus on stopgaps at the position with an eye towards Anthony Volpe or Oswald Peraza taking over the position long-term.

Outside of that specific position we don’t know for sure what Brian Cashman will do, but between the built up frustration of recent seasons and the fact that the biggest match between position of need and star player availability is at shortstop, there’s a certain level of skepticism that the team will spend big elsewhere. The reality of the matter is that there’s a budget in place regarding how much the team will dish out between this offseason and next year, and even though we can’t guarantee that the Yankees will sign an elite shortstop, the team was likely never going to do it before the lockout even if they have all the intentions in the world of doing so eventually.

Why?

Teams who spent big before December 1st had one of two things in common:

If they already committed to going over the luxury tax threshold under the old CBA, that team was likely committing to going past the $210 million mark with the intention of dipping back under as fast as possible. The way that the old system worked incentivized front offices avoiding repeated stays above the luxury tax, and with no guarantees that those incentives would change many teams were left in no-mans-land with their financials.

Nearly every team who can go over the luxury talk has done so, in optimistic fashion for just one season. That’s usually followed by cutbacks at some point in the near future to scale back and avoid those repeat offenses which increase the punishment. The 2021 Mets are an outlier with the aggressiveness of the new ownership, but up until this point that’s all that they’ve done, gone over it once. A commitment to operating on an yearly basis over the tax is pretty much unprecedented,

The other teams who spent a lot of money have substantial resources, even if not top tier and were operating with virtually no commitments and needed additions to be the core of their new rosters. The Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers still have plenty of room to maneuver around the luxury tax threshold even after spending a tremendous amount of money, and even if they did it’d be their first time going over it — reinforcing that all of this refers to the old CBA.

Virtually every contender that carried a significant payroll over the last few years for the most part committed to the strategy of waiting for the new CBA terms to be announced before diving into their offseason plans. We don’t know whether the Dodgers, Padres and Yankees will be aggressive when the lockout ends, and that will be predicated on what kind of agreement is reached between the union and the team owners, but the Yankees were never making big commitments before all of this is finalized.

The Yankees may not sign Carlos Correa or Trevor Story, regardless of their hesitation over the CBA. Still, it’s the first order of business before the team could even consider them, or consider improving at any of the other spots they’re scouting out like first base or center field. Playing the waiting game can be frustrating as an outside observer, but it doesn’t mean that it’s an all-or-nothing approach — it’s not a foregone conclusion that being passive will lead to missing out entirely. The only thing that is certain is that we’ll have to wait out the winter to see if it all works out in the end.