Sports

MLB’s Free Agency Arms Race Is Being Driven by a Surprising Group: Non-Playoff Teams

The most lucrative free agent contracts signed so far this offseason all have a somewhat surprising trait in common. Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jon Gray signed with the Rangers, who finished in last place in the AL West in 2021. Javier Báez and Eduardo Rodríguez joined the Tigers, who finished 77-85 last season; Max Scherzer and Starling Marte joined the Mets, who finished with the same record. Robbie Ray inked with the Mariners, who landed just shy of a wild-card berth; Kevin Gausman replaced Ray on the Blue Jays, who did the same.

Overall, the 11 largest free agent contracts—worth a collective $1.32 billion—have been handed out by teams that missed the 2021 playoffs. The most expensive deal for a player who’s signed with a reigning playoff team is Justin Verlander’s two-year, $50 million agreement to return to Houston.

Free Agents Deals This Offseason of At Least $50 Million

Player Years/Dollars Team Playoffs in 2021?
Player Years/Dollars Team Playoffs in 2021?
Corey Seager 10/$325 million Rangers No
Marcus Semien 7/$175 million Rangers No
Javier Báez 6/$140 million Tigers No
Max Scherzer 3/$130 million Mets No
Robbie Ray 5/$115 million Mariners No
Kevin Gausman 5/$110 million Blue Jays No
Starling Marte 4/$78 million Mets No
Eduardo Rodríguez 5/$77 million Tigers No
Raisel Iglesias 4/$58 million Angels No
Jon Gray 4/$56 million Rangers No
Avisaíl García 4/$53 million Marlins No
Justin Verlander 2/$50 million Astros Yes

Typically, non-playoff teams are more likely to negotiate the top free agent deals. Across the 2016 through 2020 offseasons (we’re ignoring last offseason because of 2020’s strange playoff structure), 74 percent of free agents who signed contracts worth at least $100 million did so with teams that hadn’t reached the playoffs the previous season. That figure was 62 percent for contracts worth at least $50 million and 54 percent for contracts worth at least $25 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ free agent tracker.

On the one hand, those percentages are about what would be expected if every team had an equal chance to sign a top free agent, as 67 percent of teams don’t make the playoffs each year; on the other, we might expect a larger proportion of top free agents to sign with playoff teams, given that contenders should be more likely to press for immediate upgrades. Moreover, a team with resources to pay more for players is probably more likely to already be a playoff team—though it may also be more likely to have already spent on players it retained via early extension.

Even against that contextual backdrop, though, the 2022 market stands out so far because 100 percent of $100 million-plus contracts are with non-playoff teams, as are 92 percent of $50 million-plus contracts.

And it’s not as if most of these new buyers just missed the playoffs in 2021—many have been absent from October for a while. The Mets and Rangers have droughts lasting five seasons each. (So do the Blue Jays, if we ignore their two-game stint as the no. 8 seed in 2020.) The Tigers and Angels haven’t reached the playoffs in seven years. The Mariners, of course, are going on two decades without a postseason berth.

But each team has its own reasons for making investments to become competitive in the near term. Toronto and Seattle are already there, as they remained alive in the AL wild-card race until the final day of the regular season; Toronto in particular looks like a potential juggernaut, after posting the fifth-best run differential in the majors last season. The Mets already had a roster with stars in their prime—Jacob deGrom, Francisco Lindor, Pete Alonso—and the richest owner in baseball to pave the way for a record-setting Scherzer contract. (Read more about New York’s outlook here.)

The Angels re-signed Raisel Iglesias, quietly one of the best closers in the league last season, and also made a few less expensive moves that nonetheless boost their 2022 outlook. Aaron Loup (0.95 ERA in 2021) shores up the bullpen, while Noah Syndergaard offers ace potential for a one-year, $21 million fee. Even the Marlins, with a tantalizing young pitching staff, signed outfielder Avisail García to a larger-than-expected deal and traded for catcher Jacob Stallings and infielder Joey Wendle.

The Tigers, like Miami, are also hopeful for the first time in years: They were an MLB-worst 9-24 through the first week of May in 2021, then went 68-61 the rest of the way. That pace probably oversells the team’s underlying talent level—Detroit needs a bunch more oomph in the lineup to contend, even with Báez—but it’s understandable that with an exciting young pitching crop already in the majors and prized prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene on the way, they would want to push forward in a weak division now.

The Rangers, however, aren’t going to contend in 2022, even with a brand-new middle infield, because the rest of the roster is just as lacking as their 102 losses in 2021—the franchise’s worst mark since 1973—suggests. To Texas’s credit, though, the team is aiming for a shorter turnaround than a full tank: According to FanGraphs’ rankings, the Rangers’ top 10 prospects are all expected to arrive in the majors by 2023. While Semien, Seager, and Gray might be the team’s only above-average players next year, they’ll all still be around in 2023 and 2024 and 2025, too. An infield with Semien at second base, Seager at shortstop, and Josh Jung—who hit .326/.398/.592 across Double- and Triple-A last year—at third could be extraordinarily productive for a while.

Not all of those moves will work out. It’s curious, for instance, that the Rangers signed Semien, the oldest of the five big free agent shortstops, when they won’t be ready to contend for at least another year. And the Tigers, in need of a lineup centerpiece, might regret inking Báez instead of Carlos Correa.

But the level of activity is the important part here, as in contrast, most clubs that competed for a title last year have remained quiet thus far—and may for months to come, as a presumed lockout would freeze all player movement starting Thursday. This chart shows every free agent who’s signed with a 2021 playoff team for at least $10 million this offseason:

Top Free Agent Deals Signed With 2021 Playoff Teams

Player Years/Dollars Team
Player Years/Dollars Team
Justin Verlander 2/$50 million Astros
Steven Matz 4/$44 million Cardinals
Anthony DeSclafani 3/$36 million Giants
Kendall Graveman 3/$24 million White Sox
Alex Cobb 2/$20 million Giants
Brandon Belt 1/$18.4 million (QO) Giants
Héctor Neris 2/$17 million Astros
Brooks Raley 2/$10 million Rays
James Paxton 1/$10 million Red Sox

Other than a few players returning to their previous teams, Steven Matz and James Paxton—the latter coming off Tommy John surgery—are the only non-relievers on the list. The biggest splurges for other playoff teams include:

  • Dodgers: Andrew Heaney for $8.5 million
  • Atlanta: Kirby Yates for $8.25 million
  • Yankees: Joely Rodríguez for $2 million
  • Brewers: Pedro Severino for $1.9 million

In sum, the 2021 playoff teams have been content thus far to maintain the status quo or to add depth to the back ends of their rosters, while the clubs chasing them are signing stars.

That approach has left some title hopefuls with curious roster holes. For instance, the Giants, with Gausman gone, are down to Logan Webb as the only true top-of-the-rotation starter, along with a wide-open no. 5 slot in the rotation. They also lost Buster Posey to retirement and might lose free agent Kris Bryant, as well.

The formidable Dodgers rotation, with Scherzer a Met and Clayton Kershaw a free agent, isn’t much better: It’s down to Walker Buehler, Julio Urías, and three question marks currently taking the shapes of Tony Gonsolin, Heaney, and David Price, none of whom were sufficiently trustworthy to start a playoff game last year. L.A. also lost Seager, albeit with Trea Turner waiting to replace him at shortstop, and could lose free agent Chris Taylor, too. Max Muncy apparently tore his UCL at the end of the regular season.

Then there’s the Yankees, in desperate need of offense after a relatively anemic 2021 showing, who have so far not added a hitter, seen three of the five main free agent shortstops sign with other teams, and been linked more with all-glove, no-bat stopgaps like Andrelton Simmons (via free agency) and Isiah Kiner-Falefa (via trade) than Correa or Trevor Story.

Of course, those concerns might all dissipate once the remaining free agents sign. Ten of the top 20 members of this free agent class have signed so far, according to MLB Trade Rumors’ rankings, but that means 10 top free agents are still available. The Yankees could sign Correa, the Dodgers Kershaw and Carlos Rodón, and the Giants Bryant, and all will look normal once again.

But for the moment, the nexus of the market activity is putting pressure on the teams at the top of the standings. While the Mets opened their pocketbooks wide, the champions in Atlanta haven’t added anyone except a backup catcher and a couple of relievers—including Freddie Freeman, who still lingers unsigned. In the same vein, the state of the Dodgers’ rotation surely heightens their need to re-sign Kershaw, and for Kershaw, in turn, to pitch to his reputation in 2022 despite the elbow injury that sidelined him for the playoffs.

Looking forward, that inversion could make for a more entertaining 2022 campaign, relative to the growing imbalance the league has displayed in recent seasons. Granted, not all non-playoff teams are trying: The Orioles, for instance, don’t currently have any catchers on their 40-man roster and will pay all of their current players less money combined than the Mets will pay Scherzer in 2022. Baltimore doesn’t have any post-arbitration players under contract at all.

Yet if the Astros have to fight to stave off a few AL West also-rans, and if the Tigers add a second decent team to the AL Central, and if the Mets and Marlins elevate the NL East, next season could feature a host of new teams pushing for the playoffs. Opening Day has always been the clichéd time for fans to dream—for a number of surprising buyers, that moment has arrived even before the 2022 season begins.

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