As teams cut costs this winter, middle-class free agents are left out in the cold

In a slow-moving market powered by clubs slashing payrolls and dodging the luxury tax, many non-superstar veterans (including Lorenzo Cain) are stuck waiting by the phone. Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

As some agents and club executives picked through the fine print of baseball’s newly completed collective bargaining agreement last fall, a lot of them reached the same conclusion: The new rules would dramatically alter how clubs spend money.

Just one year later, those predictions seem to coming true, and as some agents feared, perhaps to the great detriment of the middle class of players -- the veteran free agents who aren’t superstars. As of Thursday morning, there are about 150 unsigned free agents in what has been a very slow-moving market. Among them are six unsigned free agents who hit 30 or more homers last season and another five who hit 20 or more homers. Some of those high-profile free agents might find themselves settling for deals before Opening Day that are far less lucrative than they expected.

Major League Baseball does not have a hard salary cap, by definition. But because of a combination of penalties and incentives built into the competitive balance tax, teams that have historically been the highest-spending have cut their payrolls significantly for 2018 -- and are working to get under the CBT threshold of $197 million. “I told you last year that this was an unequivocal disaster for the union,” one agent said this week. “All you need to do is look at the trends.”

• The Yankees, who have spent over the luxury-tax threshold for 15 consecutive seasons, have cut their payroll from $224.5 million in 2016 to $208.4 million in 2017, according to The Associated Press, and they are on track to work under the $197 million threshold in 2018. The Yankees traded for Giancarlo Stanton this winter, but they have mostly sat out the free-agent market, other than a one-year re-signing of CC Sabathia.

• The Dodgers, whose payroll reached as high as $291.1 million in 2015 and was $243.7 million, also have planned to be under the $197 million threshold in the upcoming year. L.A. spent big to retain its own free agents last winter, but it doesn't seem to be involved in the bidding for any major free agent this winter.

• The Tigers have been dumping payroll all year, unloading Justin Verlander, Justin Upton and Ian Kinsler, among others. After compiling salary costs of more than $200 million in 2017, they are expected to have a payroll in the range of $130 million.

• The Red Sox appear to be on track to go over the $197 million threshold and have had conversations with premium free agents J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer. But to date, they have not made any big signings, choosing instead to retain first baseman Mitch Moreland on a two-year, $13 million deal.

• The Giants paid a small luxury tax for their 2017 payroll and have angled to slide under the $197 million threshold in the year ahead. Brian Sabean, the head of baseball operations for San Francisco, has been on record as saying he does not want to surrender the draft pick compensation attached to some of the prime free agents -- like outfielder Lorenzo Cain and third baseman Mike Moustakas -- and the Giants designed a blockbuster trade for third baseman Evan Longoria that would reduce their costs in the year ahead.

• With Jayson Werth and others falling off Washington’s payroll, the Nationals -- who paid the luxury tax in 2017 -- are seemingly in position to fall under the $197 million threshold.

Team needs change during the course of a season and financial planning can be abandoned, but it might be that the Red Sox will be the only team to go over the $197 million threshold in 2018, as club executives adjust to the new rules that give heavy incentives to work within the CBT cap.

For example: By reducing their payrolls in such a draconian manner for 2018, the Dodgers and Yankees will reset their tax rate in future years from 50 percent to 20 percent the next time they climb over the threshold -- if they do so. Andrew Friedman and Brian Cashman, who head baseball operations for the Dodgers and Yankees, respectively, have both advocated for fiscal discipline in the past. While there has been a lot of speculation that the Yankees and Dodgers are positioning themselves for an aggressive pursuit of elite free agents such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado next fall, there is no guarantee they will actually do this -- especially when so many cost-efficient alternatives are developing in the growing number of available free agents.

In 2017, Matt Adams batted .274 with 20 homers in 367 plate appearances for the Cardinals and Braves, and on Wednesday, he agreed to a one-year, $4 million deal as a bench player with the Nationals. Yonder Alonso was an All-Star last season and he hit 28 homers, and in past years, a player with his resume might have expected heavy bidding. But with the high volume of free agents scrambling for offers this winter, Alonso got a two-year, $16 million deal with the Indians.

In addition to free agents, there are about a dozen accomplished veterans available in salary dumps, such as Shin-Soo Choo and Jacoby Ellsbury.

Teams that have spent big in the past are not spending; other teams like the Marlins and Rays are following the rebuild/tanking strategy popularized by the Cubs and Astros; and the market is saturated.

An agent said that one of his players, starved for contract offers, asked him if it would be worthwhile if he sent out a tweet to remind teams he is available. “It’s a simple matter of supply and demand,” one agent said. “For a lot of these guys, it’s turning into a bloodbath.”