There are still 40 percent of the Top-10 ranked free agents unsigned, and they are all reportedly Scott Boras clients. Yes, No 2. ranked Cody Bellinger, No 4. Blake Snell, No. 6. Jordan Montgomery, and No. 7. Matt Chapman are all without contracts at the moment. The waiting game is tough all around, and there are not many teams looking to add $200 million contracts and fewer at $300+ million. Patience will pay off for some teams and some players, but not all. They are at polar opposites of this tug-of-war for the money and roster spots. Some players have tired of waiting like Corey Kluber who reportedly was going to submit his retirement papers this week.
Of the Top-50 free agents, 14 are still unsigned, and that means 28 percent are without jobs. Add in names of unranked free agents like Hyun Jin Ryu, Ryne Stanek, Adam Duvall, Michael Taylor, Joey Votto, Noah Syndergaard, Tommy Pham, and Trevor Bauer, and you find the more you look that there are well over 500 viable free agents unsigned.
Most of the issue in this superfluity of unsigned players is that MLB this year reduced their workforce in the minor leagues. Again, that doesn’t explain why there are so many unsigned star players — but let us explain the reduction in force in the minor leagues. Each team will carry 15 fewer players this year forcing some to leave paid baseball jobs — and some to go play independent baseball.
This is the second major reduction in minor league players after the consolidations a few years ago ending short-season teams, and now teams will go from 180 players during the season down to 165. That does not sound like a lot until you multiply 15 x 30 teams equals 450 fewer players. This was all a by-product of the new MiLB CBA that gave higher pay to those 165 players at the expense of nearly a 10 percent reduction of the workforce aka the players.
Do you remember Donovan Casey? He was part of the blockbuster Max Scherzer/Trea Turner Washington Nationals trade, and Casey became a minor league free agent after last season with Double-A Harrisburg. When I contacted him earlier this month, he still didn’t have any offers. He was working out hard in the gym — hoping for a chance.
Some players like Andrew Stevenson were smart and got proactive right after the Winter Meetings in December, and he took a deal for guaranteed money in Japan with the Hokkaido Nippon-Ham Fighters of the Nippon Professional Baseball league. Stevo got $850,000, which is more than the MLB minimum, plus he got a club option that could pay him $2.4 million over two years. There are not enough spots to go around in Korea and Japan for 450 displaced players. For instance, KBO teams are limited to no more than “three foreign-born players” on their roster. While that might sound discriminatory, it is what it is.
Obviously independent baseball will benefit from these unemployed players — but they cannot take all of these players. The squeeze will be felt far and wide. Veterans like Matt Adams who played for Triple-A Rochester last year is still waiting for a deal. Some will try to get jobs working in front offices such as entry level scouting, just to stay in baseball. Clint Robinson did that for a few years and found that being a driver for UPS paid better, and then he transitioned into being a realtor.
Coincidentally, Stone Garrett was out of baseball and sat for his real estate exam. Back in 2020, Garrett was in the beginning of a career as a licensed realtor in Arizona after the Marlins cut him loose after the 2019 season. His LinkedIn page was an incredible story in getting back to pro baseball — and eventually his MLB debut late in the 2022 season with the D’Backs. That LinkedIn page led to DMs between Garrett and a former video coordinator that led to an invite to the D-backs’ Spring Training in 2021.
“I was about to delete LinkedIn, two weeks before I got [a] message. There was an old video coordinator from the Gulf Coast League, my first year of pro ball. He reached out and said, ‘Hey, glad to see you doing real estate.’ I said, ‘Hey, do you know anybody that needs an outfielder? I feel like I can still compete at Double-A or above.’ He said, ‘No, but let me ask around.’— Garrett told MLB.com in an interview
“We had a [former] Marlins guy in the front office with the Diamondbacks, Brett West. Two days later I was signed to come to Spring Training. It’s pretty crazy.”
Great circumstances and maybe some divine intervention paid off for Garrett, even though it was for the minimum minor league pay and less than he was making as a realtor. But Garrett still felt like he had good baseball left in him. That will for others too. Based on supply and demand, teams will get bargains. With some Spring Training camps already opened as of this weekend, players don’t want to lose time. Bryce Harper waited until March of 2019 to sign a deal as a free agent and did okay — but sources said he had little leverage and took a low AAV ($25.38 million per year) and got no opt-outs — but hey, he got no deferrals. So how will Bellinger and Snell do?
That is the million dollar question when the smoke clears. Again, the teams seem to have the leverage here overall. Patience paid-off for the Nationals getting Joey Gallo. General Manager Mike Rizzo admitted that he was on Gallo early, and waited to get his price which came in at $5 million. You have to think that game of musical chairs does not always work as a strategy. For Gallo, that $5 million was clearly more than some teams wanted to pay in the supply/demand game that goes on in front offices.
This could work for Rizzo, like it did for the Phillies getting Harper. At some point, teams are done with new acquisitions because they are happy with their roster — or they are just out of cash. Would you take Snell for 7-years at $210 million with an opt-out after the first year? A playoff bound team probably would. The Nats needs are different. Their playoff push might be in 2025 or 2026. Patience, grasshopper.