Virtually nobody is happy that Major League Baseball has maneuvered its way into a lockout that has stopped all major league-related business for the immediate future. Yet the circumstances that led up to the owners locking out the players may have given baseball a recipe to make the offseason more exciting for fans and efficient for teams. MLB likes to boast that they are the “hot stove league” in the offseason, but in recent years, that moniker has not lived up to its billing — top free agents waited deep into the offseason, spring training, or even the season to sign contracts. It’s possible to reconfigure the offseason so that fans have a steady flow of fresh news to take in, discuss, and debate while leading up to the start of spring training.
The first move that baseball should make would also help address an inefficiency in the current system. Teams have until November 19th to decide what players to protect from the Rule 5 Draft by adding to their 40-man roster. This often leads to a roster crunch scenario where players are designated for assignment, released, and traded in order to make room for the next wave of prospects. The inefficiency comes when teams on December 1st then make another round of roster decisions in the form of the non-tender deadline.
The first change to the MLB offseason is to move the non-tender deadline up to November 15th. This way, players who have been in the majors and on 40-man rosters are declared free agents before the free agent period even begins. This also frees up 40-man roster spots for the prospects who teams want to protect, making it a more efficient process.
Now, MLB can take advantage of one of the big lessons learned from the past couple of weeks by adding a sense of urgency to the free agency process. While eligible players would be declared free agents immediately following the World Series, they would not be allowed to sign with a new team until the Monday before Thanksgiving. This would allow baseball to build up a swell of leaks and rumors in a similar vein to both the NFL and NBA, which have mad rushes in free agency — all while generating a ton of publicity and attention.
The biggest change to the free agency period is that it would be suspended at the end of the MLB Winter Meetings, which would take place during the first week in December. The first round of open free agency would be a two-week exercise where many fans would be anxious to see what their team can get done. Waiting all winter for the exact same rumors has become a stale exercise.
Following the suspension of free agency would come the biggest change to the offseason: the MLB amateur player draft. Prior to this past minor league season, MLB eliminated several short-season leagues that traditionally existed as the first professional landing spot for recent draftees. As pitch counts and inning limits have become more common, fewer and fewer pitchers are throwing any meaningful innings in their pro debuts after long college season.
Case-in point: Brendan Beck, the Yankees’ second-round draft pick in 2021, did not make his professional debut at all in 2021 after throwing 108 innings for Stanford University prior to the draft.
MLB recently moved the draft to the same week as the All-Star Game in order to take advantage of the lull in action in July following the Midsummer Classic. That lull is somewhat artificial, as the trade deadline is only weeks away and every minor league team — and by default, most of each team’s top prospects — are already in action.
Moving the draft to the offseason gives baseball a chance to truly highlight these players when fans of the sport are extremely vested in their major league storylines. The draft lends itself to previews, analysis, and breakdowns following the event. Of course, I would also make picks tradeable in my perfect world, and that would add a whole new element, especially with the roster moves that would immediately precede the event.
Once the new year commences, teams would conduct the Rule 5 Draft. The Rule 5 Draft is not an attention-getter for everyone, but it is coming off a banner year, when players like Garrett Whitlock and Akil Baddoo proved to be valuable picks for the Red Sox and Tigers. This draft traditionally held at the end of the Winter Meetings can be pushed back into January, as it was conducted last year over Slack and an audio feed. Not everyone needs to be in the same place, yet it is a source of fresh news in what is traditionally not the busiest part of the offseason for teams.
One effect of COVID in 2020 was that the International Free Agent signing period bumped back from its traditional July 2nd date to January 15th. That will continue this year, with the Yankees generating a lot of attention as they are expected to sign the top prospect in the class, shortstop Roderick Arias. This January start to the signing period should continue, as the players can sign with their teams and then do not have to wait nearly a calendar year to make their professional debuts, as they do after the July period.
The two events in January are not extremely high-profile and undoubtedly have a bit of niche audience. To keep interest flowing beyond that, a second round of free agency, set to start on February 1st, would keep rumors, news and potential deals flowing. That second round of free agency would help the sport roll right into spring training and likely still contain some of the bigger deals in the sport, but once again have a sense of urgency to it.
By moving several existing events around, Major League Baseball could make their offseason much more interesting. There are two sides to every change, but with a new alignment to the offseason and moving around several existing deadlines and events, the league could keep the news, events, and rumors fresh as it bridges the months from one season to the next.