Few teams will strike in weakened MLB free agency: Sherman

Winter is here.

Ignore the calendar. A deep freeze has arrived.

“You know what we are going to hear for a while?” one veteran agent said of the expected echo chamber from teams, “ ‘We don’t know what we can spend because we don’t know our budget.’ It already has begun.”

Free agents can begin signing with new teams at 5 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday. In the agent community there is hope that Steve Cohen’s new money will make the Mets big players, and that a few other clubs — such as the Blue Jays, Padres, Giants, Dodgers, White Sox and Twins — are showing at least an inclination to seize opportunity and strike, though most clubs intend to slash payroll.

But the general anticipation is this will not be a fast-moving market.

That already was trending the past few years, as analytics-driven organizations have become more comfortable flooding the market and, particularly for non-stars, seeing if the supply of talent drives down prices, especially as the clock ticks toward spring training.

But this is something greater.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has said the 30 teams collectively lost about $3 billion during the pandemic-stricken 2020 season. There is no clear view yet how much COVID-19 will impact the 2021 campaign. Among other questions: Will fans be allowed back? At what numbers? Already clubs can see season-ticket and corporate-sponsorship dollars are down for next season. Also, most teams are going through layoffs or furloughs of employees, potentially making it harder to justify a splurge on players.

In addition, MLB and the Players Association have yet to finalize parameters for next year. There is a schedule for 162 games in place, and the union does not have to budge off that.

But will the sides have to create scenarios for different lengths of season if, for example, Canada or multiple cities in the United States do not allow teams to play games there, or no vaccine has emerged to make trying to play safer?

Rules specifically implemented for the 2020 season now revert to what they were prior to the pandemic. So, for example, there will be no runner on second to begin extra innings and no seven-inning doubleheaders. But it is all open for negotiation. And it would impact this market, for example, if the DH were retained in the NL for 2021. Free agents such as Nelson Cruz and Edwin Encarnacion would then have 30 teams that could be interested in them rather than 15.

The playoffs will revert from 16 team to 10 teams but, again, all is on the table. Would a plan for 14 playoff teams in 2021 motivate more clubs to invest dollars to try to get into the postseason? A few agents, for example, noted that the Blue Jays — owned by a telecommunications giant that was not devastated in the pandemic — have begun free agency aggressively, reaching out to at least express interest in players. Since they are in the AL East with the Rays and Yankees, might Toronto push in more chips if the playoffs housed 14 teams?

“I do think a few teams are going to see this as an opportunity to act boldly while other clubs are sitting out,” another veteran agent said. “But is that boldly because they are offering 80 cents on the dollar when everyone else is offering 50? Or boldly to offer a fair price?”

The elite players in the market, such as catcher J.T. Realmuto and center fielder George Springer, are expected to still do fine — both, for example, play positions at which the Mets want to upgrade, plus they both hit righty (an extra perk for the Mets). More interesting might be someone like DJ LeMahieu, who in a non-COVID environment could have been looking at four years at $100 million or more. But will his age (33 in July) combined with the virus ramifications push that number down drastically?

And once you move beneath LeMahieu’s talent level, the expectation is that dollars will grow very tight. The relief market in particular is oversaturated with foreshadowing of what financially awaits. For example, the Indians with Brad Hand ($10 million), the Marlins with Brandon Kinztler ($4 million) and the Braves with Darren O’Day ($3.5 million) had 2021 options rejected that likely would not have been a year ago. That further flooded the relief market.

Expect more. Teams must tender 2021 contracts to their players by Dec. 2. More non-tenders than ever of arbitration eligible players are anticipated. In the period until then, another agent said, “I expect a lot of players to sign undervalued contracts to avoid being non-tendered and going out into a very bad free-agent [environment].”

Teams will try to trade non-tender candidates some other club might value at the projected arbitration dollars, and just about every club will be trying to move salaries with which they are uncomfortable. The Indians, for example, know they won’t keep Francisco Lindor as a free agent after the 2021 season and probably don’t want to even carry his $20 million-ish salary for next season. So are they compelled to find the best deal possible before next season begins? This was a consideration last offseason, but the COVID-19 realities and ever closer free agency puts even more pressure on Cleveland to act.

It is part of an offseason like no other ever, one that begins with a forecast of a chill in the air.

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