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I’ve been pondering the question of when, exactly, we should start being surprised at each moment passing without more things happening on the Hot Stove front. At some point, it becomes jarring even to check your phone after dinner and a movie and find that nothing has gone down. At some point, Chris Davis, Justin Upton, and Yoenis Cespedes should no longer be free agents, or at least they shouldn’t all be free agents, and it’s proper to be vexed by their ongoing unwantedness. Have we reached that point, on January 11th? Probably not. But we’re not far off, right?

Alex Gordon and Denard Span did, at last, come off the market last week. There’s a sense of gathering momentum, just now, a feeling that those remaining big-name free agents could start to fly off the metaphorical shelves of the winter market. Zoom out to take in the bigger picture, though, and there’s a building sense of something different: the slow falling of the hammer the owners have put to the players in the last several CBA negotiations, and a building sense of danger as we look toward the next ones.

Davis, Upton, and Cespedes aren’t the only high-priced free-agent options somewhat stranded in open water. Dexter Fowler and Wei-Yin Chen are out there, too. Last year, the only name-brand free agents to sign after January 11th were Nori Aoki, Colby Rasmus, Max Scherzer, and James Shields. The year before, it was Masahiro Tanaka’s market, and he didn’t sign until mid-January… but even that led only to A.J. Burnett, Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, and Ervin Santana being stuck on the market. The year before that, Michael Bourn, Kyle Lohse, and Rafael Soriano lasted, and the signings of Mike Napoli and Francisco Liriano got finalized late because of injury complications. Though Scherzer is the best free agent named in this paragraph, the next three are the ones who led it off. This kind of both quantity and quality remaining available into mid-January is essentially unprecedented, and that’s true even when looking only at the top of the market. (It’s worth noting that there are also a good number of secondary options out there, like Gerardo Parra, Ian Desmond, Howie Kendrick, Ian Kennedy, Yovani Gallardo, and Tyler Clippard.)

This was kind of fun for a little while (“hey, baseball might keep us busy all winter!”), then a bit obnoxious (“I actually wanted a little time off, baseball, please get yourself out of the way”), but now it should genuinely alarm you. It’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no path to all (or even the majority) of the league’s remaining free agents getting contracts that pay them their fair market rate. The players’ timidity over the last 15 years of CBA negotiations is coming home to roost.

Obviously, one major reason for the slow development (and presumably, the eventual underdevelopment) of the market is the qualifying offer. Davis, Upton, Fowler, Kennedy, Gallardo, Kendrick, and Desmond all have the QO hanging around their necks, and the last few winters have made it increasingly clear that players (or their agents) and teams are unable to agree happily on the discount that should be applied to players who cost the signing club a draft pick. Another big reason: the luxury tax, which kicks in at $189 million for the third year in a row. The Giants, Tigers, and Angels are pressing right up to that threshold; the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox are already well clear of it. In all cases, even for teams who have demonstrated their willingness to spend above and beyond the threshold, that artificially low threshold limits the market for all free agents. It’s possible that none of the three teams on the cusp of having to pay the tax are willing to do so under any circumstances, and even if they are willing to, their offers will be capped by the prospect of paying that tax on top of each marginal dollar spent to bring in the player in question. This is a particularly glaring concern in light of the identity of the teams knocking on the door of paying the tax, and the identities of the players left on the market. Those three fringe teams all entered this winter in need of an upgrade at at least one outfield position, but Detroit traded for the cheap and limited Cameron Maybin, and the Giants went decidedly down-market to grab Span. It’s possible the Tigers will still change their minds and pull the trigger on a deal, particularly with Cespedes, but the Angels seem set on staying beneath the soft salary cap in place. If nothing changes, then three obvious and rich candidates to sign a big-name outfielder will have more or less sat out the top-tier outfield market. Obviously, the Giants got to this point by spending big bucks to acquire both Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, and the Tigers signed Jordan Zimmermann early in the winter, but the fact remains that (in addition to whatever internal budget limitations they face) these teams have modified their aggressiveness in a key area of team need, in part because of a negotiated anti-market measure.

At least those three teams are trying, though. By my rough count, the same can’t be said of eight teams in MLB this winter: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Colorado, Miami, Milwaukee, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Tampa Bay. That’s only a modestly unusual number, but it’s a more aggressive set of tankers than is typical, especially from a spending standpoint. Contained here are the league’s poorest and cheapest teams, and also, a fistful of full-commitment tanking zealots. Again, blame the rule set: the hard caps on draft spending have made every step up the ladder toward the first overall pick (and each pick itself) much more valuable than it used to be, so teams whose focus is fully on the medium-term future face have huge disincentives to spend money to give away picks and improve their roster from a 70-win cellar dweller to a 75-win also-ran.

Here, it’s important to articulate a sometimes overlooked distinction. The debate over whether tanking is okay (or is okay to a certain extent but not to another, or is not okay at all) continues, but in essence, the conversation is the same as the one we had last spring, about the relative merits of calling up top prospects on Opening Day or manipulating their service time to delay free agency for them. It’s this simple: tanking is a rational, even necessary response to the current way things are in MLB. Team executives who pursue the strategy are, in general, doing the right thing for their team. The owners of those same teams, though, are the ones who pushed to put these rules in place, and the players’ union agreed to these rules. Just as we shouldn’t blame Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer for leaving Kris Bryant in the minors for eight games, we shouldn’t blame David Stearns for steering into the skid and seeking to maximize his opportunities to acquire long-term assets for the Brewers. We also shouldn’t blame Scott Boras for being upset when Bryant loses the right to become a free agent in 2020, nor for being frustrated by the lack of market for Chen and Davis. None of those parties sought out the rules we have in place right now, and all of those parties are doing their best for their constituencies within this system.

We can and should blame Tom Ricketts, Mark Attanasio, and Michael Weiner for this predicament, though. We can and should balk at the way this system almost creates an implicit, no-liability collusion. (Consider the international free agent spending rules, for instance, the penalty system for which has led to the league basically dividing itself into thirds, with somewhere between 8 and 12 teams sitting out each international signing period. There’s no way, none, that top-tier Latino teenagers are getting their full market value under such conditions.) We can and should object to the ongoing padding of owners’ pockets. The Braves are having a new publicly funded stadium built for them, and have used the prospect of its opening as a pretense (somehow) for not spending money. The QO system is a joke. (I can’t say that enough times.) For some inscrutable reason, the players have allowed the owners (under the stewardship of Bud Selig and Rob Manfred) to set their own course when it comes to competitive balance and the financial structure of player payrolls. The results are exactly what you’d expect: a bunch of frustrated players, a bunch of suboptimal rosters, and a bunch of even richer super-rich white guys.

I don’t expect a happy ending to the stories of the many good players still looking for homes. I do anticipate an increase, as the year goes on, in the incidence of things like the grievance the players’ union filed on behalf of Bryant earlier this offseason. I hope we don’t see a work stoppage in MLB anytime soon. If we don’t hear even the slightest rumble of one, though, Tony Clark probably isn’t doing his job. I’m not sure the folks who work in MLB’s main office even remember what a rattling saber sounds like. The players need to remind them, so that next winter, we can enjoy easier, more efficient player movement, and not have to share their frustration over another stunted market.

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Davoso
1/11
Dexter Fowler is also unsigned...
kvamlnk
1/11
Fowler is mentioned 2 times: as unsigned and as having a Qualifying Offer.
jthom17
1/11
How do not as least mention that Davis has had $154M offer from Baltimore for weeks.
Richie
1/11
Because it disproves his thesis, of course. Smashes it into smithereens, to be precise.
Richie
1/11
And what the "white" guys thing has to do with anything, I don't know. Actually the "guys" part too, for that matter. And you lefties are astounded when we working class white folk exhibit 'false consciousness' and don't vote for your bigoted candidates. Well, more funny than anything, I guess.
Dodger300
1/12
I guess your thesis is that "working class white folk" must have a strong desire to increase the wealth of billionaire businessmen and corporations. Why else would you be so pleased that the free market supposedly exists in America is shackled to deprive world class athletes of their fair value?
kolbotn
1/12
How do we know that figure to be true? Do you trust those reporting it?
alwaxman
1/11
Matthew, you raise good points, particularly the manipulation of service time and the new international signing system. But maybe the top free agents are also impacted by how frequently 5+ year / $20M+ signings don't work out.
Cardboarddream
1/11
how do you actually get rid of service time manipulation? I can think of one not great idea: If you call up a player before August 31st, you get him for the rest of the year and 6 more years. Call him up after, you get the next 7 years. That way, players are either called up in the year they are needed, or they are forced to wait until September call ups. Bryant could be called up on Opening Day in this scenario. There will of course be manipulation in August, but at least teams will be contending.
nicholj
1/11
This analysis fails on many levels. The biggest two being a failure to reference the size/quality of the free agent class relative to other years and the fact that despite all the factors alluded to, player salaries are still going up at a rapid rate. If teams were truly spending less on player salaries, that trend would at least be slowing. No attempt was even made to compare the $ already spent on free agents to prior years at this time or as the commenter above notes that some of the holdouts have large offers on the table that they aren't accepting. Is that the failure of the CBA or the player and agent's assessment of their value? Sure, the conclusion may be correct that the CBA is encouraging rational decision making on the part of the teams but to base that conclusion on a handful of individual cases without a single reference to the overall environment is one hell of a stretch.
Cardboarddream
1/11
but theoretically, the more free agents out there, the greater the number of holes on teams' rosters.
GBSimons
1/11
Player salaries continue to rise, but at a slower rate than MLB revenues are increasing. Owners are getting an ever-growing piece of the pie, and I have the MLBPA takes a firm stand this winter to get back what they've lost in the last ~15 years.
brownsugar
1/11
To follow on GBSimons point about player salaries rising at a slower rate than overall revenue, the below link is some excellent background analysis from BP alum Matt Swartz: http://www.hardballtimes.com/predicting-major-league-baseball-salary-growth/
TeamPineTar
1/11
Let's be fair to Matthew. This is a COLUMN-length piece, not an article for the SABR Research Journal. My own intuition is that Matthew's theses and conclusions are correct. We're all aware of the general "size/quality" of recent FA classes, for example. And I don't see that Matthew's point is that teams are "truly spending less on player salaries." That's nicholj's point. Sometimes, we don't need all the gory mathematical details. Matthew's column hits on a LOT of points that a lot of us are seeing in MLB. Instead of ragging on the limitations and engaging in hyperbole, nicholj, you might try to prove the OPPOSITE of any of Matthew's conclusions. BP would probably publish it if your work was as rigorous as you want Matthew's to be. But I don't think you'd get to first base. I don't know anyone who would disagree with MT's conclusion that "The QO system is a joke." The one minor bone I would pick with MT is including Ricketts in his list. The Cubs are spending, and they did last year, too.
ddietz2004
1/11
I enjoyed as always, Matthew. Just wanted to bring up a couple of points. Whether or not he is being truthful, Tony Clark recently said the gap in income between the players and owners isn't quite what is being reported. Whether he is attempting to be coy to avoid being distracting is anyone's guess. Also, I wouldn't necessarily say Oakland is tanking. They haven't spent much money. However, they signed a couple of potential high upside guys for very little in Rich Hill and Henderson Alvarez. They also traded for Jed Lowrie and Liam Hendricks. Obviously, the names aren't quite as sexy, but it doesn't seem too out of the ordinary for what Oakland has done the last 20 years or so.
doctawojo
1/11
On the day the Supreme Court is hearing Friedrichs v. CTA, it is worth noting that the MLBPA is operating in the most antiunion environment we've seen in, I don't know, a century? And not out of the blue, but as part of a 40-year concerted campaign to make it this way. In such a highly public industry, and in a world in which some significant portion of its membership is likely quite antiunion, it's worth noting these things before casting aspersions at Michael Weiner and Tony Clark. However brilliant Marvin Miller may have been, 1966 was an entirely different place than 2016.
jfranco77
1/11
I think it's unfair to call the Rays and A's tanking... they're just sitting out the top end of the FA market because they're poor. Or, "poor" if you prefer. The Pirates aren't exactly shopping in that market either - you don't think they look significantly better with Chris Davis instead of John Jaso? I think it's interesting that teams who have already lost their 1st round pick (Giants and Tigers) seem to be more deterred by the luxury tax than the picks, given that they would now lose a 3rd rounder for signing another player. (Tigers 1st was protected, I think) It's possible that the real mistake the MLBPA made (among many) was allowing the luxury tax to compound itself so severely.
thepete39
1/11
Was going to chime in about the Rays and A's too. I don't think they can be lumped in with those other teams who have absolutely zero intention of contending this year. The A's actually spent some money, albeit on the likes of Rich Hill and Ryan Madson. Maybe it's the typical Beane acquisitions of veterans to potentially trade at the deadline if the team stinks, but at least he's sought to improve the roster. The Rays have added on via trade (and signed Hank Conger) which is about as much as one could expect from them. They look to be, at minimum, as much of a contender as they've been the last couple years (~80 wins). Nitpicking a minor point in the article, but anywho...
JParks
1/11
"This kind of both quantity and quality remaining available into mid-January is essentially unprecedented" Would be nice to back this statement with some data rather than just a list of names. And "tanking" is way too strong. Huge difference between smart management of resources and tanking. Don't see too many MLB teams tanking, especially compared to NBA teams.
bhacking
1/11
Not from an owner or players perspective but from that of a fan, the current system is working well. Small market teams can compete and big market teams can spend more to help themselves. As a fan I don't see a problem. At all.
jsdspud
1/11
In my opinion, the biggest issue complicating the free agent market is the cap on draft bonuses. Before 2012, teams didn't mind losing a first round pick since they could still spend $5 million on a 2nd rounder with a large bonus demand. Now, the bonus slotted for a first round pick makes up the majority of the bonus pool and teams can't afford to lose it. MLB needs to separate draft spending from payroll spending. This would also stop the tanking issue, as there wouldn't be an incentive to finish worst, unless a generational talent is in the draft pool. Another factor is that front offices being smarter and realizing that a players performance tends to decline when he reaches 30. Why spend big money for declining performance?
sbnbaseball
1/11
Since when did rebuilding become tanking? I guess the negative connotation that tanking gives works for your article.
lmarighi
1/11
You are right that a team can rebuild without tanking, I think the A's and Rays are pretty clearly doing that. I'm less sure that what's going on in PHI or MIL can be classified as anything other than tanking, although certainly in those cases the tanking is part of rebuilding.
cmaczkow
1/11
One other thing that I think we are seeing is that a lot of teams are not willing to take the risk on waiting out players in the really-good-but-not-great group. These guys traditionally seem to wait for the top names to go off the board, and then maximize their value with teams desperate to get them. Instead, this year we've seen teams get insurance early on (e.g. Maybin to the Tigers) so they won't be left with a glaring hole if they aren't able to sign one of the remaining big names. And teams without glaring holes have a lot more leverage when it comes to adding a player they perceive more as a luxury than a necessity.
vic19x
1/13
I think a legitimate case can be made, especially regarding Davis, Cespedes and JUpton. They are all "good" players but there are enough questions regarding each that you have to wonder what you are getting for your money. This is where advanced metrics play a roll.......why pay Cespedes $20 mil per year when an AAA guy your system is close (within a game or two) in performance? Also, given the QO, is Fowler worth Span money plus the loss in draft pick? One question I have is: are these guys getting low offers they're not accepting or not getting offers at all because of their price tag?
brownsugar
1/11
While not a new development, a large part of the issue from the player's perspective is that it takes MLB players 6 years of MLB service time before they reach free agency. Most players are in their late 20's or early 30's before they are paid a market rate for the first time. If I were MLBPA, I'd push for free agency for players with 6 years service time OR when they reach 28 years of age. This would allow most players to hit free agency sooner, allow players to negotiate from more of a position of strength when they do hit free agency (I'm still in my prime!), and render moot any efforts to manipulate the service time of any player older than 22. I very much doubt the owners would ever agree to it, but that is the tactic I'd take to extract concessions on QO's and service time manipulation.
shmage
1/11
The MLBPA has consistently taken the wrong approach, putting the interests of a few dozen superstars ahead of those of all other players, of fans, and of the game of baseball itself. Instead, they should offer a hard overall salary cap (including a five-year prorata of draftee bonuses) of maybe $210 million in return for a hard salary floor of say $150 million and an increase of the MLB active-roster size to 27. The benefits to everyone but a few agents and their superstars would be obvious and immediate.
brownsugar
1/11
I agree that MLBPA has generally done a poor job of looking out for the interests of non-superstar players. But instituting a salary floor, especially one as high as $150M, would require a massive increase in revenue sharing between teams. I think many owners would cringe more at providing more revenue to other owners than they would at providing it to players.
Tom9418
1/12
This was a waste of my time. Is MLB growing revenues as fast as they should? Are they paying the players a fair percentage? Also, what's with the "white guys" comment? Are there any good writers left here?
MindRevolution
1/12
Hey don't forget we get our weekly feminists talking points now too with more complaining about rich white men.
Behemoth
1/12
How many of the owners are not super-rich white guys?