George Will had an old line about baseball’s offseason as an “interminable cultural drought”—which, if it was ever true, doesn’t feel so anymore. The culture doesn’t dry up in the winter. It just moves. The spotlight shifts from the game to its institutional structure. There are no highlights to enjoy, but there are transactions to scrutinize and payrolls to analyze. It’s perhaps unfair to label this culture as boring, but it’s certainly more persnickety.
In this framework, the offseason doesn’t feel like an opportunity for rest as much as one for re-education. On February 11, 2019’s offseason reached free agency’s hundred-day mark. Traditionally, the re-education is over by then. The contracts are signed, the positional battles established, the projections finalized. The first blurry photographs of pitchers and catchers reporting to ballfields have begun to circulate on Twitter. We’ve learned just about all that we’re going to learn about these teams before we actually get to see them. A hundred days is long enough to judge the direction of a presidential administration, after all. It only seems reasonable that it’s typically been more than enough to evaluate a baseball team’s free agency, too. The New Deals just happen to be lowercase here.
But 100 days into this year’s free agency, there hasn’t been much education beyond the realization that teams are increasingly loath to sign players to long-term contracts. The game’s best free agents remain on the market, disrupting the oddsmakers’ abilities to set favorites and the projection systems to finalize theirs. The final landing spot for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado (or Dallas Keuchel, or Craig Kimbrel, or Marwin Gonzalez, or Mike Moustakas, or…) isn’t all that informs the prognosticators. It’s what these signings mean for depth, division rivalries and the greater competitive landscape. If baseball’s winter has traditionally been a season to learn about the potential structure of spring and summer, the game looks awfully shapeless as players head to spring training. Now that we are 100-plus days in, what have we learned from this free agency?
Many, Many, Many Individuals’ Personal Opinions About the DH
Any baseball conversation, given enough participants and enough time, will eventually become a debate about the DH.
Some of this is the fundamental oddity of different rules in different leagues. Some is an earnest conversation on strategy, aesthetics, roster construction. But more often than not, the debate hinges on sentimentality—an argument that the baseball that you watched as a youngster was and is the best baseball. The DH debate has been polished smooth after decades of tumbling through various news cycles and scoring environments and game contexts.
And it persists—because, if nothing else, it’s something that everyone can talk about when there’s nothing to talk about. So what else were we going to discuss this winter?
The Perils of Success, Authored By Harold Baines
Edgar Martinez’s Hall of Fame election delivered additional texture to the value of the designated hitter. Mariano Rivera’s unanimous selection sparked a tiny debate of its own, about precedent and history and greatness. No Hall of Fame inductee discourse, though, was asheatedas that of Harold Baines.
Harold Baines! After a career that seemed almost scientifically engineered to avoid heated discourse. After 22 years of wonderfully capable performance, six all-star seasons, Baines was set to fade into history as a player warmly appreciated by his peers and maybe considered a little bit underrated by contemporaries. He was the perfect candidate for decades of appreciative hey, remember him? The worst that you could say was that his career was so inoffensive that it was boring. And then this winter sent all that to hell. Baines’ career finally has distinction … because he’s in the Hall of Fame! That’s the peak of distinction. Yet Baines is also, quite possibly, distinctly the worst player in the Hall of Fame.
Baines’ 38.7 Baseball-Reference WAR is in the same neighborhood as a handful of this winter’s free agents: Curtis Granderson (47.7), Troy Tulowitzki (44.1), Andrew McCutchen (42.0), Josh Donaldson (38.5). Is this fair? Is it right? How much do fairness and rightness matter, really, to a baseball museum? How much does any of this matter? Maybe not at all. Baines was just strong enough to receive baseball’s highest honor and just weak enough to be chastened for it. Maybe this wasn’t exactly a lesson, but it was, at least, a reminder—baseball has nothing so dependent on context as the idea of being overrated.
Zac(h)(k) Britton’s Real Name
This is the part that we aren’t supposed to have to learn in the offseason. This is the part that we all know! There’s a lot to re-learn—a player’s team might change, or his jersey number, or his position, or his performance projection. Everything can change! There is one thing that doesn’t, one thing that ties together all this change, and that’s his name.
Or it isn't. Sometimes the name changes, too.
This Whole System Is Different
We learned this last winter, with plenty of notable free agents available in late January, in February, in March. There was talk of a potentially serious problem harming a historic free agent class But it was just one year, and, after all, every team would clamor for Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, right?
But this year, too, has been different. A different system isn’t necessarily a broken system, but the stirring debate over the latter makes the former increasingly difficult to ignore. Go back to the offseason of 2015—before the most recent CBA, the winter of free agency for Max Scherzer and Jon Lester and Nelson Cruz. There were fourteen contracts signed above $40 million. Of these, twelve were announced in either November or December. The 2016 offseason wasn’t too different—15 such contracts, nine of them in November or December, and all before the start of February. In 2017, there was an even bigger push to be early. Ten players signed for $40 million or more, and all ten were done before the calendar flipped to January.
Then came 2018. There were nine deals above $40 million—only three of which happened in November or December, while two happened in March, previously unfathomably late for a top free agent. This year’s offseason has only continued the trendline. There have, so far, been four deals above $40 million: Patrick Corbin, Andrew McCutchen, and Nathan Eovaldi in December; A.J. Pollack in January. Meanwhile, pitchers and catchers are already reporting.
The public debate regarding the effects and the righteousness (or lack thereof) of this shift is reaching critical mass, but there is little arguing that a shift has happened and is continuing. Instead of the shape of the competitive landscape or the strategy behind a new style of roster construction, this, perhaps, has been the central lesson of the offseason—baseball’s economic system is changing.
Baseball Is So Very, Very, Very Fun
Like Zack Britton’s name, this one feels like something that we are not supposed to have to re-learn. This is supposed to be a given! This is supposed to be the reason that we are all here, that we care enough to debate the DH, to quibble over who is placed in which room at a museum in central New York, to tabulate the gains and losses of free agency. Yet in the winter of baseball’s deep discontent, it’s a little more difficult to stay anchored to this part of the equation. Maybe it’s an interminable cultural drought, after all.
It isn’t. The winter still has some baseball, after all—not charts of baseball contracts or arguments on baseball’s pace of play, but baseball. Remember this? Remember Willians Astudillo, beloved portly utilityman of the Minnesota Twins, crafting the most delightfully silly home run celebration in the Venezuelan Winter League? This, too, was something to learn (or re-learn) from this winter—how wonderful and absurd and fun that all of this can be. This is the best of what baseball has to give, or, in other words, the exact measure of how much baseball might have to lose.