The upcoming offseason was always going to be a nightmare for free agents.
Reduced revenues in 2020 because of the pandemic are set to precipitate a winter of austerity, with many teams looking to cut costs rather than spend big. Uncertainty over the game's financial future beyond that - an extension of the broader uncertainty that colors our daily lives - will only depress the market further. "There's going to be opportunity for some buy-lows," as one team executive cynically remarked to ESPN's Buster Olney earlier this summer.
It was imperative, then, with baseball in the midst of a financial quagmire, that soon-to-be free agents step up their game in 2020 and put up strong platform seasons, abbreviated as they are, to offset at least some of the post-pandemic discount.
Instead, several of the market's biggest names have done the opposite. Floundering in this shortened season and undercutting themselves further, they've set the stage for what could be one of the most underwhelming offseasons since the inception of free agency in 1976.
This spring, before COVID-19 upended life and baseball, the upcoming class of free agents looked pretty compelling, if a bit less star-studded than last year's crop. Mookie Betts headlined a group of players that also featured a perennial All-Star outfielder, a potential franchise shortstop, the game's best catcher, and multiple top-of-the-rotation starters. Seven months later, the top of the board looks a bit uninspired, and it now seems possible - if not probable - that not a single free agent will command a nine-figure deal for the first time in 15 years.
Betts, of course, is already locked up, having signed a 12-year, $365-million extension with the Los Angeles Dodgers in July. But besides Phillies catcher J.T. Realmuto and Reds right-hander Trevor Bauer, who have positioned themselves for handsome paydays with monster 2020 campaigns, few of the market's supposed top talents did themselves any favors ahead of what was already destined to be a frustrating winter.
George Springer, the longtime Houston Astros star who earned downballot American League MVP votes in two of the previous three years, has regressed following a mammoth season in which he posted career bests in virtually every statistical category. Marcus Semien, the Oakland Athletics' gifted shortstop who finished fifth in the majors in WAR in 2019 thanks to a career year offensively, is in the midst of his worst season to date.
James Paxton, the oft-injured New York Yankees left-hander, made five mostly brutal starts before suffering an elbow strain that has sidelined him for three weeks now. Andrelton Simmons, the Los Angeles Angels' wizard of a shortstop, also missed considerable time, and he won't receive enough at-bats between now and November to convince prospective suitors that he's not as punchless at the plate as his 2019 numbers suggested.