The Chicago White Sox front office has done the off-field equivalent of ambushing a first-pitch fastball, potentially jump-starting the winter market with a $123-million splash this week.
One day after signing free-agent catcher Yasmani Grandal to a four-year, $73-million contract, the White Sox announced Friday they have re-signed slugger Jose Abreu to a three-year, $50-million deal.
Abreu, a three-time All-Star who has hit at least 25 homers and driven in at least 100 runs in five of his first six big league seasons, opted to forgo free agency by accepting a $17.8-million qualifying offer last week, so this long-term contract replaces his one-year deal.
The free-agent market has moved at a glacial pace the past two winters, with many top players, including Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, not signing until after spring training started and others such as Dallas Keuchel not signing until June.
Could the signings of Grandal and Abreu, combined with Atlanta’s signing of free-agent closer Will Smith to a three-year, $40-million deal Nov. 14, be an indication the free-agent freeze that prompted some players to all but accuse management of collusion be thawing this winter?
“In the past, when the market was free and competitive, there were 17-20 signings in November,” one prominent player agent said, speaking on the condition his name not be used. “We’re three weeks into free agency if you count the quiet period and only two players [Grandal and Smith] have changed teams.”
Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season, and a free-agent system that players claim is being depressed by owners will be a focus of talks for a new agreement.
“One hundred or so free agents left unsigned. System is broken,” Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander tweeted last Feb. 11. “They blame ‘rebuilding,’ but that’s B.S. You’re telling me you couldn’t sign Bryce or Manny for 10 years and go from there?”
Machado eventually signed a 10-year, $300-million deal with the San Diego Padres on Feb. 21, and Harper signed a 13-year, $330-million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies on Feb. 28.
If ever there was a crop of free agents with the potential to break an apparent stalemate between players and owners and spur early bidding wars, this winter’s group is it.
Among the free agents available are starting pitchers Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg, Zack Wheeler, Madison Bumgarner, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Cole Hamels and Keuchel and third basemen Anthony Rendon, Josh Donaldson and Mike Moustakas.
Cole, Strasburg, Ryu, Keuchel, Rendon and Moustakas are all represented by agent Scott Boras, who is notorious for pushing negotiations for his clients deep into the winter or spring.
The bidding for Cole, who went 20-5 with a 2.50 ERA and an American League-leading 326 strikeouts for the Astros in 2019, will be fierce, with the Angels, Dodgers, New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants among the teams pursuing the right-hander.
The World Series-champion Washington Nationals are expected to make a strong push to retain Strasburg, and there is expected to be a robust market for Rendon, Moustakas and Donaldson, who is being targeted by the Dodgers.
But how quickly the markets for those players materialize and how players sign could hinge on Boras.
“Boras controls the top of the market, and I do believe that he will get some players signed sooner rather than later,” the agent said. “As a result, the market won’t move at glacial speed, but it will still be slow.
“Many clubs use the excuse that they need to see the entire field of players available, which will come after the [Dec. 2] tender date. Other clubs use the excuse that they are focusing on trades. Why would any club give up assets to acquire a player who they must pay instead of just acquiring the player and paying him? In either scenario, that alone slows the market.”