The stories began appearing three winters ago and accelerated in pace in the winter of 2017-18: Some of the richest teams in baseball appeared to be getting their financial houses in order, trimming payroll, clearing space and getting under the luxury tax threshold, all in apparent preparation for what was coming in the winter of 2018-19: what was expected to be the most anticipated free agent class in baseball history.
“Why the incredible Class of 2018 will change MLB as we know it,” read a Yahoo story from December 2015.
But now, the winter of 2018-19 has come and almost gone — spring training camps open in a little more than three weeks — and the free agent market is as cold as the January weather. The two biggest prizes of this offseason, 26-year-old superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, remain unsigned, with few teams known to be bidding for them, and the industry-wide shift away from long deals and veteran players, which began in earnest last winter, has continued.
The slowdown in spending has drawn the ire of baseball’s labor side, with agent Jeff Borris recently going public with accusations, typically only whispered privately, that owners are colluding to depress salaries, and players such as Jake Arrieta, Dallas Keuchel and Evan Longoria taking to social media to voice their own concerns.
Baseball’s union, faced with another slow-moving free agent market, increasingly depicts the trend of teams being “unwilling to compete” as damaging the sport. In 2018, according to Forbes, overall spending on payroll declined for the first time in eight years, despite revenues reaching a record $10.3 billion.