As the MLB offseason drags deep into the winter, and likely into next year, the biggest moves of the NBA offseason have already transpired. While teams like the SF Giants may benefit, is it good for the league?
The contrast between Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Associations’ offseason is stark. As the majority of the best MLB free agents remain available with no rumors or reports suggesting that will change soon, most NBA roster movement has already been settled. Teams like the SF Giants have taken advantage of the slow-developing offseason before, but is it good for the sport?
This is far from a new trend. Every summer, when the NBA free-agency moratorium ends, fans fervently refresh their Twitter feeds as dozens of deals transpire in a matter of hours. Usually, with the exception of a few free agents, every roster is pretty much settled in a matter of days.
Free agency has become an event for the NBA. Programs like The Jump have built programming schedules around the start of free agency. In contrast, most MLB fans are surprised when they find out the offseason has already started. Signings trickle in at a snail’s pace deep into February with notable players remaining unsigned past Opening Day.
NBA reporters like Shams Charania and Adrian Wojnarowski have built cult followings around their competing to break the flood of news stories coming in during the offseason. Baseball just lacks that same caché. The closest the league comes is at the MLB trade deadline, but even that activity has quieted over the past few seasons.
Some of the biggest players to switch teams in free agency over the past few years, like Bryce Harper, have seen their free-agency sweepstakes last for months on end. Many will point to his agent, Scott Boras, at fault and Boras has no doubt been aggressively willing to push his clients to wait for an offer they want.
However, the core of the problem falls with the league and teams. MLB team ownerships have been increasingly cutting into player’s shares of revenues. Many front-offices and team analysts have been more than happy to come up with formulas and processes to justify their curtailed spending. These far more aggressive cost-cutting approaches have forced players and agents like Boras to take more drastic measures in response.
The most obvious solution would seem like adding a deadline to moves. If MLB created a window for free-agent signings that lasted just a few weeks or months, that could create a more active time for fans. It would also make it easier for them to stay up to date with moves and not have to follow months of speculation.
The problem for anyone trying to make the offseason more exciting is twofold though. One, commissioner Rob Manfred’s actions have little interest in making the game more interesting, content solidifying ownership’s leverage to lower payrolls. Secondly, applying any deadlines to free-agent deals only makes negotiating more difficult for players. Teams can afford to wait out a free-agent. They have a farm system full of minor-leaguers ready to take their place, a player is unlikely to have any source of income equivalent to playing.
It’s worth noting that this year’s NBA offseason is even more condensed due to delays caused by the league’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the biggest motive for quick movement by teams is simple: a salary floor. The NBA salary cap is around $102 million, but every team must spend at least $91.2 million. MLB has no such mechanism.
If every team had to spend, they might as well try to get the best players. Without that mandate though, teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Oakland Athletics can continue ignoring a huge portion of the free-agent market.
The SF Giants have no doubt benefitted from the drawn-out free agency of the past few years. Reliever Tony Watson was signed to a well below market value deal in the spring of 2018 due to a slow offseason. Still, the detriment to the league outweighs the benefits. MLB should try to capture the excitement leagues like the NBA create but don’t get it twisted. Setting deadlines will not address the root of the problem. If teams have the choice not to spend, many will always choose not to. If MLB fans want free agency to be more exciting, calling for a salary floor could make that happen.