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Opinion: Non-tender deadline floods free agent market, another sign of ugly reality of MLB in 2020

  • December 03, 2020

It wasn’t the bloodbath players and agents feared, but the free-agent marketplace became overstuffed Wednesday, with power-hitting left fielders feeling the brunt of baseball’s economic crunch.

There were a record 59 arbitration-eligible players non-tendered — three more than a year ago. There were 59 who signed one-year contracts. And two trades.

No position became more gutted than those power-hitting outfielders whose best position is their bat.

The Chicago Cubs non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, part of their core four of their 2016 World Series run. He hit 38 homers two years ago, and has a career rate of 14.9 at-bats per home — second only to Sammy Sosa (12.8) in Cubs history. But they worried about paying someone about $9 million after hitting .188 last year, particularly with no idea whether there will be a universal DH in 2021.

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The Minnesota Twins had about five teams express interest in Eddie Rosario, but no one was willing to pay about $10 million for the left fielder, even after hitting 119 homers with 388 RBI since his 2015 debut. They placed him on outright waivers, he cleared in the afternoon and they did not offer him a contract, instead deciding to use the money for pitching, while giving prized rookie Alex Kirilloff the opportunity to take the position.

The Atlanta Braves have spent more than $30 million on free-agent pitching, but outfielder Adam Duvall, who hit 16 homers — the fifth-most in MLB — was cut loose. The Chicago White Sox let right fielder Nomar Mazara walk away along with pitcher Carlos Rodon. The Colorado Rockies didn’t even want to spend about $2.5 million to retain injury-prone outfielder David Dahl, their former first-round pick and 2019 All-Star who has missed 183 games the past two seasons. He could end making a GM look like a genius.

“It’s tough to say goodbye to guys, but there’s times when you have to for business reasons,” Rockies GM Jeff Bridich said. “There were a combination of those sorts of business reasons at play here for these decisions, based on what’s going on in the industry.”

Amid the coronavirus pandemic and games without fans, the industry lost about $3 billion last year, according to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, and there is uncertainty for 2021.

It’s still unknown how arbitrators will view salary arbitration in February — whether they will act as if their 2020 stats in a 60-game shortened season even exist, and instead rely on their 2018 and 2019 seasons.

It may not even be until the spring, officials forecast, when anyone knows if there will be a universal DH. MLB officials will grant a DH if the union agrees to an expanded playoff format to 14 teams, but there has been little progress in their negotiations.

The cash-strapped Miami Marlins certainly gambled on a DH in the National League next year, bringing back slugger Jesus Aguilar on a one-year, $4.35 million contract with $150,000 in incentives.

Really, the only set of players protected by teams’ cost-cutting plans were starting pitching. The New York Mets signed Steven Matz to a one-year, $5.2 million contract after going 0-5 with a 9.68 ERA last year. The Rockies hung onto Jon Gray despite his 2-4, 6.69 ERA last season. And the Philadelphia Phillies are staying with Vince Valasquez, who is 19-28 with a 4.99 ERA in the last four seasons.

There were 20 right-handed relievers who hit the market, led by Archie Bradley of the Cincinnati Reds. He was acquired for the stretch run, but the Reds didn’t want to pay perhaps as much as $5.7 million, as MLB Trade Rumors projected in an arbitration award, to a reliever who would be used as a setup man despite his 2.95 ERA since 2017.

It didn’t stop the World Series champion Los Angeles Dodgers, however, from jumping on former closer Corey Knebel, knowing the Brewers were going to non-tender him. The Dodgers agreed to acquire him for cash or a player to be named later, despite his salary projected to be $5.125 million after pitching only 13 1/3 innings because of injuries since 2018.

There were a total of seven former top-10picks who hit the marketplace.

“This is a nightmare for the players’ association,” former pitcher Ron Darling said on the MLB Network. “The one thing [former union chief] Marvin Miller never wanted was a glut of players out on the free agent market.”

If you’re a team in need of a third baseman, Maikel Franco and Travis Shaw may be the perfect cheap fit. Franco, non-tendered for the second consecutive year, played in every game last year with the Kansas CIty Royals, hitting eight homers with a .778 OPS. And Shaw, who earned just $4 million last year with the Toronto Blue Jays, hit six homers with a .717 OPS.

No matter where you look, no matter what your needs, there are now nearly 235 free agents on the open market.

Ladies and gentlemen, start your checkbooks.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale

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