'There’s no rush to sign:' MLB agents bemoan slow free agent market

These are veteran agents, most of whom have gone through strikes and work stoppages, but nothing, they say, has resembled this winter.

There have been frigid free-agent winters, particularly the past few years, but nothing has resembled this deep freeze.

Seventy days have passed since the start of free agency, and only 32 free agents who entered the marketplace have signed major-league contracts, totalling $226 million. Yep, less than what the Los Angeles Angels paid Albert Pujols (10 years, $250 million) nine years ago.

There are still more than 150 unemployed players, including J.T. Realmuto, Trevor Bauer, George Springer and D.J. LeMahieu.

The Mets dropped $40.6 million on catcher James McCann, which is $39.8 million more than the entire National League Central Division has spent this winter. He is the only non-foreign free agent to receive more than a two-year guaranteed contract.

The New York Yankees, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, with three of the five highest payrolls in 2020, have spent a total of $750,000.

Agents keep calling, and the response is always nearly the same.

Teams say the pandemic wiped out their finances, leaving them with little or no money and certainly not the kind of money their clients are seeking.

“You got to laugh,’’ one long-tenured agent said, “or cry.

“Right now, it’s the latter."

USA TODAY Sports spoke with 10 leading agents about the free-agent market — their frustrations, fears and predictions. They were granted anonymity to allow them to be candid. 

The question on everyone’s mind is what is taking so long. A year ago at this time, according to ESPN, $1.195 billion had been spent in free agency. There hasn't been this little spent in free agency at this juncture in the past decade.

The reason, of course, is the pandemic. Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred said teams lost $3 billion last year. And if teams lost $3 billion in a 60-game season, the fear among owners is what happens if a 162-game season is played with no fans, or at least a limited number of fans throughout the year.

“We all lost money in the pandemic, but they’re all reading from the same script,’’ a West Coast-based agent said. “They say, 'I have no idea what my budget is.’ Every single GM is telling me that. It’s all B.S. They don’t know what the budget is until they sign the player they want. They’re trying to manufacture a depressed market."

Several agents said they believe teams are attempting to to keep the market flooded so that players start to panic and sign for less than expected.

“Teams believe that with the glut of free agents on the market close to spring training, players start to get real antsy and nervous," one agent said. "The owners know this and take advantage of it.’’

George Springer is one of the top free agents on the market this winter.

Other agents said they believe the slowdown is also a byproduct of no face-to-face interaction that routinely occurs during the GM and Baseball winter meetings. It's more difficult to generate momentum during zoom calls, conference calls, e-mails and text-messages.

“I’d rather have a root canal with no anesthesia than having a Zoom call,’’ one agent said. “Normally, you get in front of people, get a read, get to know things, and everything is on the phone. It’s just not the same. You just don’t get the same feeling.

“It has thrown the entire calendar out of whack.’’

Said another agent: “It’s just a totally different feeling this year. You don’t have the same dialogue or continuity. Teams are relying on analytics so much now that players are being evaluated the same. If you miss on one guy, no big deal, the other guys have similar numbers. There’s no urgency.’’

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Starting pitcher Anthony DeSclafani signed a one-year, $6 million contract two weeks ago with the San Francisco Giants knowing that if he hadn’t taken their offer, there were three others starters who could have signed for the same price.

In addition, an active trade market has impacted free agency. Instead of the San Diego Padres paying for Bauer, they traded prospects for Blake Snell and Yu Darvish. The Chicago White Sox traded for veteran starter Lance Lynn of the Texas Rangers. The Washington Nationals grabbed their slugger by trading for Josh Bell of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cleveland Indians are shopping All-Star shortstop Francisco Lindor. The Colorado Rockies are doing the same with third baseman Nolan Arenado. The Chicago Cubs are making third baseman Kris Bryant and catcher Willson Contreras available. The Cincinnati Reds traded closer Raisel Iglesias to the Los Angeles Angels and are letting teams know starter Sonny Gray and infielders Mike Moustakas and Eugenio Suarez are available, too.

“The trouble,’’ one East Coast-based agent said, “is that usually the trading period is over by now. There still are so many talented guys available. So teams are weighing whether they’d rather give up prospects to get a guy or keep their prospects and just pay a free agent."

The most widespread complaint among the agents is that teams are showing little desire to win.

Aside from the small-market Padres adding payroll with Snell, Darvish and Korean infielder Ha-Seong Kim, no other team has been remotely as aggressive. Most instead are going the other direction.

The Tampa Bay Rays, who won the American League pennant, dumped Snell and let veteran starter Charlie Morton walk away instead of picking up his $15 million option. The Cubs, who have been to the playoffs five times in the past six years, unloaded Darvish and the remaining $59 million in his contract, cut outfielder Kyle Schwarber and are open for business with other veterans.

“The reality is there are a lot of teams that just aren’t going to spend money," one agent said. “They tell you they lost a lot of money, and whether you don’t believe it, they certainly do, so it doesn’t matter what you think.

“You look at teams like Tampa and Miami. They probably made money by not having fans in the stands because of their low attendance and operating expenses, but they were crushed by not having that $40 million to $50 million in revenue sharing. Teams like the Cardinals rely heavily on their attendance, and got nothing.

“You look around, and there are 20 teams that just aren’t going to spend money this winter.’’

The team everyone is looking at is the Mets, who were purchased in October by Steve Cohen, the richest owner in baseball. He’s worth at least $14.5 billion and didn’t lose a dime in baseball a year ago.

They are supposed to be the George Steinbrenner Yankees, rounding up every high-priced free agent, and at the least, being used by every agent as leverage.

But the Mets have been cautious, deciding to spend $40 million on McCann rather than wait for Realmuto’s price-tag to drop. They gave a $18.9 million qualifying offer to starter Marcus Stroman and grabbed reliever Trevor May for $15.5 million. They are widely expected to land Springer, possibly even Bauer, and won’t rule out LeMahieu, but no high-profile free agent wants to move as long as the Mets are in the picture.

“There’s no rush to sign," another East Coast-based agent said, “because the reality is that money is always available. But what is not always available is rare talent. The scarcity of this rare talent is why players will still get paid.’’

There’s no consensus among agents on whether the biggest free agents will still get their money. Springer, 30, a three-time All-Star and World Series champion, was the player agents most agents consider will likely receive his full value.

“I believe the guys getting the long-term contracts will be safe because teams can back-load deals if they want," said another agent. “This has just been a collective slowdown. You can’t blame one team. I don’t believe 50% of what I’m told, but I do believe a large segment of clubs don’t have their budget yet, there are labor concerns, fan concerns, and the vaccination issue.

“It’s natural to have trepidation.’’

So, what happens now?

It’s likely the relief pitcher market, which usually hits a flurry around the winter meetings, will take off once All-Star closer Liam Hendriks signs. He is being courted by several teams.

Will the Phillies’ patience pay off with Realmuto?

Will the Yankees’ waiting game on LeMahieu work, or could it backfire if a team like the Dodgers step up, refusing to give team favorite Justin Turner a deal longer than two years?

And what high-profile free agent lands with the Blue Jays, who are talking to everyone this winter?

“There’s just so much uncertainty out there,’’ said an agent who has represented players for nearly 40 years. “They all want you to take a discount, but you don’t even know the number that you’re negotiating will be pro-rated. When does spring training start? How many games will there be this season? Will fans be allowed in?

“Hey, when you have significant losses in the game — from both sides —  and all of this uncertainty, that’s a really bad combo.’’

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