How did MLB produce an NBA-style, 24-hour frenzy of free agent drama with a lockout looming?

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At 4:55 p.m. ET on Sunday night, as most Americans were traveling back toward home or steeling themselves to return to the grind of everyday life, word hit Twitter that Marcus Semien had agreed to a seven-year, $175 million deal with the Texas Rangers.

It was the first nine-figure deal and first true marquee free agent signing of an offseason that seemed to be gravitating not toward hot stove pyrotechnics, but toward an impending work stoppage and labor strife. At the same hour on Monday afternoon, Semien’s deal was one of five $100+ million contracts on the board after a dizzying day of seismic moves. Hell, it was one of two shortstop mega-deals pulled off by the Texas Rangers.

Unannounced, unplanned and seemingly by complete accident, MLB achieved a delirious burst of transaction drama typically reserved for when the NBA opens its free agency floodgates.

How much of the MLB offseason happened in one day?

Over the 23 hours and 40 minutes that elapsed between Semien reaching a deal with the Rangers and the news that he’d be joined by fellow top-tier middle infielder Corey Seager on a 10-year, $325 million deal, the following things also happened:

That means three of FanGraphs’ top four free agents, and five of the top 15, moved in one 24-hour period.

Meanwhile, the clock ticked closer, closer, closer to Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. ET, when the collective bargaining agreement will expire and the team owners will likely initiate a lockout, putting the hot stove in a deep freeze. When everyone came up for air on Monday night, it felt like baseball had thrown a party before a root canal, a feast before the famine.

The question — for a league that has repeatedly frustrated with slow, drawn-out, borderline non-competitive winters in recent years — is what about the league’s current powder keg set off this thrilling, fan-friendly frenzy.

San Francisco, CA - October 14: Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Max Scherzer reacts after striking out San Francisco Giants' Wilmer Flores to end game five of the 2021 National League Division Series at Oracle Park on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 in San Francisco, CA. The Dodgers won 2-1. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Max Scherzer's move to the Mets was one highlight of an electric day on MLB's hot stove. (Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Why did so many star free agents sign now?

One thing we intuitively know is that baseball teams love a deadline. And despite the ominous overtones of a work stoppage, MLB’s uncertain labor situation essentially provided a type of push that most winters lack.

The near-inevitability of a lockout means a couple things: 1) Players and owners do not see eye-to-eye on the economics of the sport right now, and whether the lockout stretches a few relatively harmless weeks or becomes a season-delaying calamity, some fundamental things about how business gets done will likely be changed. 2) The offseason will be interrupted, likely significantly, and there will be a scramble once a deal is reached to sign with teams or, conversely, find players to fill roster holes.

Going into the offseason, that interruption seemed like it might just lead to a compressed scramble after the new CBA is finalized. In recent seasons, teams have habitually waited out free agents — players signing closer to the season have tended to make less, both in general and relative to expectations.

Plus, it seemed reasonable that players might expect the new CBA to be better for their interests. Perhaps they would wait to see what new advantages it might offer before inking long-term deals that will stretch the length of that deal or longer.

Not the case!

With the lockout almost certainly set to begin Thursday (and any player movement requiring a physical), general managers and agents ended their Thanksgiving breaks early and got to business on Sunday night. Instead of letting the CBA uncertainty stall progress, top-flight free agents seem to have leveraged the impending freeze to simply strike earlier deals that tend to be better for players.

That has proven true. Players have earned bigger pay days than we expected. Of the seven deals in this burst, six saw players get more years than expected by FanGraphs’ (often quite accurate) median crowdsourced projection, and Scherzer matched his expected years. Six of the players also exceeded their expected average annual value (with Gray virtually matching his).

While an actual offseason free agency deadline in normal times would be nearly impossible to implement and would likely have the opposite effect — teams would manipulate it to drive down player prices just as they have used draft pick compensation, for instance — the pressure of the transaction freeze has worked in players’ favor.

It’s worth pointing out that both Scherzer and Semien are both deeply enmeshed in the negotiations as members of the union’s executive subcommittee. They are also both Scott Boras clients. By all indications, there’s nothing concrete enough (or momentous enough) happening in CBA negotiations to influence these decisions, but it would be a reasonable hypothesis to think the players have determined stars won’t be the big beneficiaries of the changes they are fighting for. As Hannah Keyser pointed out last week, the biggest issue driving labor strife is the feeling that young players and role-playing veterans are being squeezed out of their fair shares. Stars, the thought would go, may see the present moment as an equally conducive or even better time to hammer out big money.

Also notable: It’s a very specific class of teams jumping at the chance to scoop up the marquee names. The biggest commitment made by a team that made the playoffs in 2021 is the Houston Astros’ two-year, $50 million agreement to retain Justin Verlander as he returns from Tommy John surgery. The biggest outside addition by a playoff team? The St. Louis Cardinals’ $44 million deal to lure Steven Matz. The 10 biggest deals of the offseason so far — including Tuesday’s reported agreement between Javier Báez and the Detroit Tigers — have been swung by non-playoff teams as rumors swirl about the playoffs expanding under the new CBA.

It all amounts to a formula MLB would probably love to take credit for: Big money for big stars. A fireworks show of signings to excite a wide swath of fans. More teams pushing their chips to the center to be competitive. 

But it’s a product of this very specific scenario, one that can’t be replicated or re-engineered for effect. And it probably ends Thursday. With a step into an undefined abyss.

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