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The 2021 MLB trade deadline could end up a free agent bonanza

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Thanks, I hate it.

Boston Red Sox v Philadelphia Phillies - Game Two Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images

It’s the fifth day of January, 2021. Major League Baseball teams typically - emphasis on typically given the nature of what we’ve all lived through this past ten months - send their fleet of pitchers and catchers to spring training venues during the second full week of February in preparation for the season to come.

So, we’re five weeks out from the start of the start of the 2021 MLB season. One quick glance at the baseball landscape, however, will show that while the season is reportedly on-track to begin on time, you can count on two fingers the number of teams that actually look prepared to enter the grind fully stocked.

The Athletic’s Evan Drellich reported earlier this week that it does appear the 162 game season will be the goal of both MLB and the MLB Players Association, with no shortening of the season or push-back in the cards. That’s simply the first of several steps needed to actually figure out how this entire thing is going to work, as we’ve still not seen concrete decisions made on key topics like the Designated Hitter in the National League, roster size, the nature of minor league seasons, and other incredibly pertinent inputs to how to operate a professional baseball franchise and roster.

One thing we do know, however, is that teams are spending much less, to date, than they did this time last year, back in the pre-pandemic times. James McCann’s $40 million deal stands as the single largest contract doled out by any club so far this winter, with franchise-altering talents like Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, and George Springer, among others, still out there twiddling thumbs waiting for offers of any kind. And that’s where things begin to get a bit fishy.

MLB owners mostly advocated for shortening the season and/or pushing it back in part because the hope was for fans to have a better chance to put their butts back in ballpark seats. Fans mean ticket sales, beer purchases, parking, and overall revenue bumps. Overall revenue bumps mean, in theory at least, that owners would have more money to pay players to win games for them. On the flipside, agreeing to shorten the season means a proration of salaries on existing player contracts, something the union is vehemently against for a second consecutive year, arguing that, in effect, the losses the game is facing are being disproportionately dumped on them despite the risk of exposure also falling directly on their shoulders.

What’s different this time around, though, is that there are a lot fewer players playing under existing contracts than there were during the shortened 2020 season. And while fighting for 162 game guarantees of all existing contracts guarantees the money owed to players who have contracts, it seems to be doing a doozy to the idea of out-of-contract players signing for anything close to what they’d be worth.

It’s akin to the dilemma facing players who have rejected Qualifying Offers in ‘typical’ years, though I know that the likes of Bauer/Realmuto/Springer did so this year, too. Signing those players in typical offseasons kicks in draft pick penalty/compensation, something that has had the effect of dampening the sheen on otherwise star-caliber players, adding a thin layer of immediate buyer’s remorse into signing them. This year, there’s a similar buyer’s remorse at play, although instead of ‘loss of a draft pick’ being the anchor, it’s ‘paying them for a full 162 game season instead of for a smaller, prorated amount.’

Signing Springer, or Realmuto right now to a 5-year, $125 million deal would be a lot more palatable to teams if they knew they only had to fork over, say, $12-15 million in this first year. It’s not so much that teams don’t see the longer-term value these players will present to their teams as much as it is a day to day cash-flow issue, one that owners do not want to solve by stock sales elsewhere. What’s adding fuel to those decisions is the collective will pointing almost exclusively in a lone direction, as it seems only a handful of clubs have waded into the ‘additions’ pool so far this winter.

All it takes to make a playoff run is to be better than your peers, after all, and if your peers are actively getting worse to save a buck, well, the bar to clear continues to get lower.

It’s teetering on the scenario I spelled out in the title of this ramble. Each year, teams spend the first half of the season doing their best to win games and establish who they think they can be that year, only for the trade deadline to present the opportunity to make strategic acquisitions for a playoff push they weren’t 100% sure they could make back on Opening Day. First you build a team you hope could make the playoffs, then you build the team you want to win games with in the playoffs, in essence. Typically, that’s through the trade route, as teams who are out of the playoff chase look to cash-in for the future as teams with routes towards immediate success take on players to win now.

I wonder if this year will end up much different, however. I wonder if we’ll see the huge free agent pool end up leaking deeper into the season than ever before, as teams look to keep payrolls low until they are absolutely sure they’ve got a shot to win. A first place team that would look to add a back-end reliever at the deadline in most years now simply decides it’s time to pay Brand Hand, or Archie Bradley the millions they deserve, but only do so in July once they’re a half-dozen games over .500. Teams that ‘weren’t sure there’d be a DH or not’ opt to give Kyle Schwarber the time of day come June, and pick him up as stadium crowds are finally allowed to exceed 5,000 per game.

It’s one part the QO dilemma we’ve seen impact the likes of Nelson Cruz in previous years, and another part the service-time manipulation we’ve witnessed with top prospects year after year after year. It’s simple - it’s ownership groups not doling out any money until they feel they absolutely have to. This time around, though, it might even be pervasive enough to drive the free agent market, too, a market that has typically been the one most impervious to money-grubbing.

Thing is, if it were merely a freak pandemic year, I’d mostly understand it, even if I like to think I’m pro-player in most every scenario like this. It isn’t just a freak pandemic year, however, as the current Collective Bargaining Agreement - the agreement that gives the union the power to demand a full 162 game schedule in the first place - expires at the end of this season, and these two forces are going to already be spending the next few months scratching and clawing at one another to determine the financial future of this game as is.

Adding in the kind of labor freeze I’ve spent 1100+ words outlining already will only make those talks more contentious, and the idea of a 2022 season going off in any way akin to normal becomes bleaker by the minute. It’s the perfect storm, really, one that has me worried for the future of this game as we know it beyond what we get in 2021.

We’ll still see some players sign in these coming weeks, of course, but there’s a decent portion of the free agent class that I firmly expect to get squeezed, squeezed well into the 2021 season itself.