Lockout Threat Spurs Wild Start To MLB Free Agency. Can Something Good Come From This?

It was now a couple of decades ago that the NFL realized that turning the draft into an entertainment event helped turn a part of the offseason into a must-watch portion of a fan’s year-round obsession with their favorite NFL team.

At a time when Major League Baseball was still trying to keep its draft an actual secret (with no one authorized to release information on which players went in what rounds), the NFL realized that making the draft into a broadcast TV event helped grow casual fans into diehards and added yet another month to the calendar where NFL garnered plenty of attention.

The draft aired on ESPN as far back as the early 1980s, but by the 1990s, the NFL did everything it could to make the lead-up to the draft a month-long commercial for its sport, providing a chance for fans to dream of which players their team could target. 

At this point, the NFL has managed to make the NFL draft combine, the schedule release day and free agency into days circled on fans’ calendars. Similarly, the first day of the NBA’s free agent signing period is a wild, non-stop run of deals, trades and speculation.

They are events that add up to a non-stop array of publicity and interest for the respective leagues.

On the other hand, only the hardiest of diehard MLB fans know when the free agent signing period in baseball begins (Nov. 7 this year). There’s no reason to know—no one signs right away. This year, not one MLB free agent signed on Nov. 7. Often many of the biggest free agents may wait one, two or even three months before deciding on where they’ll go. 

By the time the first day of NBA free agency wrapped up last offseason, 56 deals had been announced. Another 23 deals were announced on day two and another 10 on day three.

In the NFL, 44 of the top 50 free agents on Pro Football Talk’s board had agreed to deals by the end of the first week of the NFL’s free agency.

The normal MLB free agency can best be described as an endurance contest for fans, players and teams. Last year, Kevin Gausman, Robbie Ray, Charlie Morton and Marcus Stroman signed in November, but Marcus Semien, George Springer and J.T. Realmuto all reached their deals in January. Trevor Bauer’s free agency stretched into February.

It was no different in 2019. That year Gerrit Cole, Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon all signed in December. Josh Donaldson and Marcell Ozuna agreed to deals in January. Bryce Harper, one of the top free agents in years, signed on March 1 after spring training had already begun.

Why does this matter? For the outcome of games, it may mean very little. And players and teams should have time to figure out their best options.

But for generating interest in the sport, there’s something very compelling about a smaller window in which (most) teams and players find their new fits. There’s not a countdown to the start of free agency for fans to anticipate if free agents aren’t expected to sign for another 20, 50 or 100 days.

And this year, thanks to the artificial deadline of the expected Dec. 1 lockout, all of a sudden MLB has a free agency that has edged much closer to that of the other sports. And the sport as a whole is benefitting.

Having a three-week period where many of the top free agents sign, contracts get extended and trades happen has provided a nice boost of interest for fans, even if the looming threat of an owner lockout of the players threatens to quickly extinguish much of the interest.

If you are a Rangers fan, all of a sudden the 2021 season is history and one can actually start thinking optimistically of what adding Marcus Semien and Jon Gray does to the lineup and rotation. Mets fans can get excited about what a spending spree that nets Starling Marte, Eduardo Escobar, Mark Canha (and maybe others) means for next year.

Sure, the same signings spread over the next three months would mean the same thing for the actual Mets’ 2022 hopes, but it wouldn’t mean nearly as much for fan interest. For teams, having these deals done early allows the team to sell tickets and market based on the increased interest. There’s something to be said for the health of the sport to get these deals done earlier in the offseason. And it’s also beneficial for the players’ state of mind to get the best deal possible as early in the process as possible, where the entire rest of the offseason can be spent preparing for a move to a new city.

So here’s a simple question, does it make sense for both sides (players and owners) to create a system that incentivizes speeding up free agency? I would argue yes. And as such, how about we create a couple of incentives in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement to help it happen.

1) Push back the start of free agency by a week. Teams could have a negotiating window to talk to free agents and their agents, but the actual free agency begins at 12 a.m. on Nov. 15. Very, very few players sign on the first day anyway, but this means there can be a couple of weeks of rumors and speculation to feed into the free agency period.

2) Have a roster dead period from the end of the Winter Meetings until Jan. 3. One of the frequent complaints we hear from everyone in baseball is baseball never stops. It used to be that nothing happened the week between Christmas and New Year’s, but even that is a relic of a past age. Telling every team that no moves can be made for three weeks would help ensure that everyone in baseball could slow down, at least for a few days.

Putting a dead period at the end of the Winter Meetings may also spark some renewed interest in an event that otherwise is in danger of becoming a relic of another time. If there is a lockout, this will be the second consecutive year without an MLB Winter Meetings. The meetings serve as a networking event and a reunion for the baseball industry, but making it a cornerstone of baseball’s offseason promotional calendar requires deals, something that has been in scarce supply in recent years. Tying a roster dead period to the end of the Winter Meetings could help that.

3) Set up a 40-man roster inducement to encourage teams to sign free agents earlier. In our proposal, any MLB free agent who signs for more than $8 million in average annual value would not count towards the 40-man roster until Opening Day of the next season (or if you prefer, until the day after the day where players can be added to the 60-day injured list). But such an inducement only applies to players who sign between the start of free agency (Nov. 15 in our proposal) and the end of the Winter Meetings (which usually is around Dec. 8-12).

It’s a minor inducement, but with teams always looking at crammed 40-man rosters, such an incentive could drive teams to make their best offer earlier in the process, unlike the attritional, grind-it-out free agency that so often exists right now.

If a player wants to wait until later to sign, he’s still free to do so. If a team wants to wait out the initial rush of free agency, it would still be its prerogative. But this year has shown that baseball loves nothing more than a deadline, and the sport would benefit from figuring out a way to continue that in the future.

It’s unfortunate that it’s taken the threat of a lockout to create a compelling first month of MLB free agency, but maybe something good can come from this.


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