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Springer Signing Loosens Baseball Free Agent Market as Teams Choose Roles

Major League Baseball’s free agent market is beginning to heat up as the now nearly certain report date of Feb. 16 for pitchers at spring training camps in Florida and Arizona is growing closer and closer.

The Yankees have re-signed infielder D.J. LeMahieu and added right-hander Corey Kluber for a combined $101 million. LeMahieu’s deal is for six years and $90 million, while Kluber will get one year at $11 million.

Kluber should replace Masahiro Tanaka in the Yankees rotation. Tanaka is expected to get more money from a Nippon Professional Baseball team than he will now in MLB and may return to Japan.

The Yankees haven’t formally announced either signing, pending physicals.

Meanwhile, outfielder George Springer broke the big logjam by agreeing to a six-year, $150 million contract with the Blue Jays. That’s by far the longest and richest of the deals that 40 of the outstanding free agents have signed since the end of the World Series on Oct. 27. That leaves 261 still on the market.

The signing of Springer and LeMahieu eliminates two of the top five. Pitcher Trevor Bauer, catcher J.T. Realmuto and outfielder Marvel Ozuna are still out there, but if events follow the norm they won’t be for long. The Phillies allegedly want to bring back Realmuto on a five-year contract worth $110 million.

Despite commissioner Rob Manfred saying MLB had accumulated $3 billion in losses and $8.3 billion in debt to play a COVID-abbreviated 60-game season in 2020, teams have already spent a collective $577.15 million on those 40 free-agent players, although many of the 30 teams are looking at another season with either no fans or a very limited number of spectators in the seats.

Even with the uncertainty of when the season might start, its length and the possible holdover of coronavirus-related rule changes from last year, super-agent Scott Boras said he noticed a trend among some clubs towards business as usual.

“You’ve really seen clubs act differently to that,” Boras said. “Some clubs have really been in the mode of standard operating procedure, trying to acquire the best players and move forward. There have been other clubs that said: ‘We’re interested in your players, but we need to get more direction from our ownership of what we should do.’ Depending on the team you have to say there have been very different approaches to how aggressive they are in the market.”

These are the usual aggressive suspects. There are the Yankees (see above). The Mets, under the new ownership of Steve Cohen, now own $71.6 million worth of new contacts after signing free agent catcher James McCann and trading with the Indians for shortstop Francisco Lindor and starter Carlos Carrasco. And the Dodgers re-signed reliever Blake Treinen for $17.5 million after last season giving right-fielder Mookie Betts a 12-year, $365 million extension.

Other big players on the list now include the Blue Jays, who aside from the pending signing of Springer, re-signed starter Robbie Ray for a year at $8 million and added reliever Kirby Yates for a year at $5.5 million, as well as starter Tyler Chatwood for a year at $3 million. And that’s with the Jays having played most of their home games last season sans fans at Sahlen Field, a Triple-A facility in Buffalo, and with no certainty about where they will call home in 2021.

The White Sox again went on a spending spree, signing closer Liam Hendriks for three years at $54 million and outfielder Adam Eaton for a year at $8 million.

Meanwhile, heretofore big spenders like the Cubs and Red Sox have held the line or shed money. The Cubs traded pitcher Yu Darvish to the Padres, sending San Diego the final three years and $59 million of his original six-year deal and eating $3 million of it for this season only. Plus, the Cubbies decided to non-tender outfielder Kyle Schwarber because they didn’t want to spend the $7 million guaranteed the Nationals paid him for a year as a free agent.

The Red Sox still haven’t re-signed outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., but have spent modestly to add outfielder Hunter Renfroe for a year at $3.1 million and reliever Matt Andriese for a year at $2.1 million.

The Red Sox famously broke the bank, spending an MLB-leading $227.4 million to win the World Series in 2018, and have since retrenched, trading Betts and David Price to the Dodgers this past February and dropping the club payroll to a current $147.9 million, good for seventh in baseball.

“I think it would be inaccurate to say we are going for it with an all-in approach that perhaps we did prior to the 2018 title,” club president Sam Kennedy this week told the Boston Globe.

“We cherish that title, and all of them, but the way we built that team came at a price, which included importantly a depleted farm system and some depleted draft picks along the way. So we are building back up, and as we do this hopefully the right way, we’ll have a chance to be competitive in the American League East in 2021, but also for the longer term.”

That price might be even more severe considering there was no minor league season last year, and little ball played at the high school and college level when baseball paused because of the spreading coronavirus this past March 12, skewing development and any evaluation of young players ahead of this June’s annual draft of amateur players.

To be sure, there have been late-breaking free-agent signing seasons even before COVID struck.

In 2018, the Padres didn’t sign first baseman Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million pact until Feb. 19, and the Red Sox waited until Feb. 26 to ink DH J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110 million deal.

In 2019, the Padres signed third baseman Manny Machado to a 10-year, $300 million blockbuster deal on Feb. 21. The Phillies finally grabbed outfielder Bryce Harper for $13 years at $330 million on March 2. And during the course of that spring training, the Rockies re-upped third baseman Nolan Arenado at eight years, $260 million, while the Angels did the same for Mike Trout, signing the center fielder to a 12-year $426.5 million extension, the most lucrative player contract in MLB history.

The snail’s pace of signing deals those years led to a rueful glance from the MLB Players Association, the union that represents the players. The union declined to comment Thursday on the flow of the current market. But if the past indicates any precept, there’s sure be more big-money signings in the next few months before the first pitch of the regular season is thrown on April 1.

“A lot of teams lost profits, great profits,” Boras said about the state of the sport. “But we know this: In operating the game and having baseball games, teams make money. We do have the records of the Atlanta Braves. During the third quarter when they were playing, they were making millions of dollars even without fans. We know that players playing baseball games makes money for Major League teams. The best we [as agents] can do is get players on the field.”

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