COLUMN: How the slow free agent market is impacting the Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates pitchers and catchers report to Bradenton in 12 days and the Bucs have spent zero dollars in free agency this offseason.

That’s right. Not a dime. But while the Pittsburgh Pirates wouldn’t have spent much to begin with, this offseason has been unlike any other we have seen in the past.

The Hot Stove season never came close to even getting lukewarm, leaving frugal teams like the Bucs in limbo.

While it has been frustrating for Pirates fans to see the payroll cut and nothing added, the Bucs are not alone.

Teams like the Los Angeles Angels ($146.8 million spent), Colorado Rockies ($114.5 million), Milwaukee Brewers ($105 million) Chicago Cubs ($89 million) and New York Mets ($55 million) have been the exception this season and not the rule.

Most teams are in a holding pattern and in addition to the Pirates, the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins and Tampa Rays also have yet to spend a dime in free agency. Usual big spenders in the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers have also kept their checkbooks locked up as Baltimore has spent less than one million and the Dodgers less than 2 million.

People have been predicating for a couple months now that the market would heat up, but it hasn’t and there is no end to this freeze of spending in sight.

The longer this takes, it has to be considered a good thing for teams like the Pirates as the market could eventually come back to them.

Where we stand now

Of the top 50 free agents on most lists, 11 of the top 20 remain unsigned as of this writing.

Names like: J.D. Martinez, Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, Todd Frazier, Logan Morrison, Jonathan Lucroy and Greg Holland all are without teams.

Until those guys get contracts, especially the first six or seven names, the rest of the guys are going to remain unsigned.

It also presents a trickle-down effect to the next tier of free agents, which include names like: Carlos Gomez, Carlos Gonzalez, Neil Walker, Eduardo Nunez, Tony Watson, Andrew Cashner, Jaime Garcia and others.

That also hurts guys like Jarrod Dyson, Lucas Duda, John Jay, Melky Cabrera and more. Players the Pittsburgh Pirates would look at.

As it stands now, you could build quite the baseball team just consisting of unsigned guys right now. One that would be better than half the teams in the league.

Where are we headed?

That’s the question.

In reality, one of two things are going to happen.

The list goes on as there are over 100 free agents still unsigned. Last time I checked you need still need baseball players to play baseball.

The first is players are going to start signing for whatever they can get.

That may be good for teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates as players who once thought they were going to cash in or even get a decent payday by MLB standards will have to start signing for the best offer available, which may be well below market value.

That alone could help the Pirates as they may be able to find a bargain or two they wouldn’t be able to get in other years.

There’s a couple of reasons why most of these free agents remain unsigned. The first is the luxury tax as most teams are trying to avoid it. The biggest spending teams all seem eager to get under the luxury-tax threshold. Then there is the fact that most of the top free agents in this year’s class aren’t that good.

Sure guys like Martinez and Hosmer are very good ballplayers and pitchers like Darvish and Arietta are top of the rotation guys, but does anyone consider them franchise-changing type of players?

Not when next season’s free agency class could include Bryce Harper and Manny Machado for starters. It’s not collusion as many players and agents will claim.

It’s that the bubble has finally burst on spending.

There are 30-40 players in the majors right now who are above the age of 30 and still owed more than $100 million by their teams. At least 80 percent of those deals are bad contracts that teams wish they could get out from. That’s preventing guys like Martinez and Hosmer from getting the 7-year, $140-150 million deals they crave.

The teams that don’t have a problem overpaying don’t have the fit for guys like Martinez and Hosmer. That could lead to guys taking what they can get.

This isn’t any kind of permanent fix to the economics of baseball, but it may help temporarily. The second option is the players stick to their guns and wait until they get the money they want. That could go onto closer to the end of spring training.

Once that happens it will be a free for all.

That will be bad for the Pittsburgh Pirates as once the top guys sign there will be a bidding war for the rest of the free agents and we all know how the Pirates fare in bidding wars.

Players and agents aren’t happy. Agent Brodie Van Wagenen went as far as to suggest things like boycotts of spring training and work stoppages.

That’s not the answer, but the talk of a strike is gaining steam, Ken Rosenthal writes at The Athletic.

Earlier this week, in conference calls that union officials held with player representatives, players asked about the viability of collectively refusing to show up at spring training until Feb. 24, the mandatory reporting date, according to sources. It was a significant step — signed players standing up for unsigned players — but the union informed the players that an organized action of that sort would constitute an unlawful strike in violation of the CBA, and the players dropped the idea, sources said.

But until the market heats up, you have to wonder how long the players will be willing to sit out?

One thing is for sure though and that is if we head down this road, and it looks more and more every day like we are, it’s going to be bad news for the Pirates in the long run.

It’s the unions job to stick up for the players and no union does that better than the MLB Players Union.

The past two CBA’s didn’t quite go the players way and you can bet that the next one is going to, which is bad for the Pirates. Things like team control of players, arbitration, free agency, the luxury tax are set in stone for now because the owners got the upper hand on the players the last time the CBA was negotiated.

What all of this does is all but assures a work stoppage once the CBA run out in 2021.

The MLBPA will get what they want and that means salaries will increase and the Pirates will still be left holding the bags of most of the other teams in the league.

What do the Pittsburgh Pirates do?

At this point, nothing. Just the way they like it.

They could use an outfielder and have been linked recently to Cabrera, but guys like he, Dyson, Jay and other probably won’t come off the board until Martinez and others get deals.

They can wait it out and hopefully get a bargain or two once spring training starts for maybe half of what the market value has been.

Who knows, the Bucs still probably won’t be players in free agency, but it’s not out of this world to think they can steal an outfielder, starting pitcher, bench help or anything else for a lot cheaper than anyone may have expected.

They’ve waited this long to improve the team, what’s a few more weeks.

If things keep trending the way they are, the Pirates could be players in the free agent market after all.

Matt Shetler

Matt is a life long Pirates fan with both a newspaper and radio background. Before coming to Pirates Breakdown he was most recently the co-owner and lead columnist for Pittsburgh Sporting News. He has been a credentialed writer for all four major sports and also has written for plenty of other sports and fantasy sports websites.