MLB free agent rumors drag into spring but no need to panic | Nightengale's Notebook

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Former Cincinnati Reds MVP Joey Votto, sitting in his car as it slowly moves through a car wash, looks at his phone and glumly utters: "This isn’t spring training."

Outfielder Tommy Pham, who just four months ago helped lead the Arizona Diamondbacks to the National League pennant, continues working out every day in Las Vegas, waiting for someone, anyone, to just make a contract offer.

Two-time Cy Young award winner Blake Snell, World Series hero Jordan Montgomery and four-time Gold Glove winner Matt Chapman, remained unemployed while all of their friends are playing in spring training games a month before the season starts.

Meanwhile, early Sunday morning, former MVP Cody Bellinger and the Chicago Cubs have agreed on a three-year, $80 million contract, according to a person with direct knowledge of the agreement. The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on condition of anonymity because the contract will not be finalized until Bellinger completes his physical. The deal was first reported by ESPN.

Agent Scott Boras is usually up at 5:30 in the morning, talking on the phone, patiently waiting for someone to make a move on one of his top remaining free agents.

"I feel like I’m an airport controller," Boras tells USA TODAY Sports, "trying to land these planes."

The 2024 season-opener is less than four weeks away, but several of the biggest stars in the game have yet to be signed, along with about 25 other veteran everyday players and starting pitchers.

“You feel for those guys,’’ Dodgers veteran reliever T.J. McFarland says. “You play really well. You get to free agency. It should be a great offseason. You finally get to negotiate your own worth. And then something like this happens.

“It’s disheartening. It stinks. I would imagine they’re getting offers, but they don’t like what’s been offered to them so far. They’re not signing because they don’t believe they’re being offered what their value to a team is, but you know, your market is whatever someone is willing to pay you."

The $2.7 billion winter of expenditures has been highlighted by Shohei Ohtani’s historic 10-year, $700 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers and starter Yoshinobu Yamamoto’s 12-year, $325 million deal. There have been five players who have received contracts worth at least $95 million, with Snell and Montgomery all expected to be added to eclipse nine figures.

Yet, outside the international market, there have been only five players who have received contracts of at least four years, compared to 15 players each of the past two winters.

Blake SNell won the 2023 NL Cy Young award.
Blake SNell won the 2023 NL Cy Young award.

The greatest obstacles in this year’s free-agent market is that the traditional big spenders have not cracked open their checkbooks. The Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, New York Yankees, San Diego Padres and World Series champion Texas Rangers have all spent less than the Kansas City Royals.

There are 11 teams expected to open the season with a lower payroll than a year ago, including the Padres, who have slashed their payroll by $95 million.

It’s enough to make a high-powered agent, who has the top five players on the market, scream into the Newport Beach, Calif., night.

“Clubs have plenty of money to spend," Boras says, “but they’re not spending in a matter that is customary to competitiveness. It’s not that they don’t have the ability to pay, but their choice to regress on their payrolls.

Just a year ago, the Mets and Padres were in an arms race, spending wildly, convinced it was their year to win the World Series.  This season, they’re settling for being competitive, with a simple wild-card berth considered a tremendous accomplishment.

“Nobody is saying the revenues in baseball are not going up, or that every team in baseball isn’t getting record revenues than at any time in their history," Boras says, “but you’re seeing clubs that are not in any way pursuing competitiveness in the manner of the past."

The stagnant market has caused some of the biggest stars in the game to call out their own ownership this past week. Three-time MVP Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, Yankees MVP Aaron Judge and Boston Red Sox All-Star third baseman Rafael Devers each implored their teams to take advantage of the players available.

“Players that have made commitments to their franchise," Boras says, “they’re crying out. They were told by ownership they had a common goal of winning. We’re seeing those situations now where the players are serving as the litmus test for the commitment to winning.

“When you have players like this who are available, they can dramatically impact the outcome and goals of teams. It’s like the trade deadline in July. You can absolutely change the culture in the clubhouse by adding one of these players."

Several general managers and managers have privately joined the chorus, telling agents to remain patient. They continue to have discussions with their owners, hoping to convince them that reinforcements are needed.

“We understand that there are a lot of very good players still available as we sit here," Clark said Saturday, “while knowing that there a lot of players out there that can help clubs be better. There remains an opportunity now as there remained an opportunity in November for clubs to determine which players they’re interested in and sign those players.

“We remain hopeful that even where we are on the calendar that the glut of talent that is out there, if teams are indeed looking to continue to improve to be the last team standing, they’ll find homes.’’

There’s no doubt that the remaining free agents in Boras’ Big Five – Snell, Montgomery, Chapman and slugger J.D. Martinez – will eventually be signed. It’s just a matter of the details.

“I don’t really know what’s going on," Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman says, “but I just know a lot of teams are going to get some really good players soon."

Several teams who have expressed strong interest in short-term contracts, but are leery about providing lengthy deals.

Several owners and executives have also created consternation among agents and union officials by publicly declaring their intentions to stay out of the free agent market. Minnesota Twins owner Joe Pohlad’s recent comments saying they would not sign a $30 million free agent has the union considering filing a formal complaint saying that Pohad’s interview may have violated a reservation of rights clause with the use of media in the collective bargaining agreement.

Several other executives, such as Farhan Zaidi, president of baseball operations for the San Francisco Giants, and Texas Rangers GM Chris Young have also publicly declared their intentions to stand pat, just not as explicit as Pohlad.

Time will tell whether these teams are offering honest assessments, or engaging in bargaining tactics.

“When you talk about a commitment to win," Boras says, “it’s hard to sell the city and fans you’re doing everything possible to achieve a championship if you don’t pursue the talent that’s available.

It may be painfully frustrating, and the wait can be excruciating, but it’s too early for panic to set in. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t sign their mega contracts with the San Diego Padres and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively, until after the of spring training in 2019.

There’s still no concrete timetable, but if there’s no movement two weeks from now, there could be severe complications.

“We’re open to all sorts of ideas, short-term, long-term, flex," Boras says. “I can tell you these players are not seeking anything beyond the what the existing industry standards are.’’

Besides, as several teams have already revealed in their pursuit of Ohtani and Yamamoto, they have the money. The Blue Jays were willing to pay $700 million on Ohtani, but have only spent $37.5 million since being rejected. The Yankees, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox and Giants all offered Yamamoto at least $300 million, but after being snubbed, no one decided to use at least a portion of that money to sign another marquee free agent like Snell or Montgomery.

It's too early to draw conclusions, Clark said, and the union will wait until the season starts to evaluate the entirety of the free-agent period.

“I’m not going to offer any theories at this point ... ," Clark said.  “Once the lights come on, we'll sit down with the individual representatives and/or have conversations along the way with respect to the players that were in the middle of it…It’s an ongoing evaluation of any market to try to determine what the experience was versus what the rhetoric may have been versus what may need to be addressed as a result."

Besides, it’s never too late to make a move, invigorate a fanbase, and let your fanbase know you’re in it to win it.

“Remember,’’ Boras says, “this is still February."

Proud voices

Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Los Angeles Angels manager Ron Washington were thrilled to be invited by the Hall of Fame to be the voices on their new exhibit, "The Souls of the Game: Voices of Black Baseball."

“I think it’s going to be phenomenal for people to hear and see this interactive exhibit," Roberts said. “They asked me things like what it was like being be a Black player, what was the experience of being a Black manager, how the game has changed, and how we can have more people of color playing baseball.

“I wish I could have seen and met some of the Negro League players. I would have loved to have a glass of wine and talk to Satchel Paige. He had so much fun, and was so dominant for so long. A crazy competitor."

The exhibit opens on May 25 when Cooperstown hosts the Hall of Fame East-West Classic: A Tribute to the Negro Leagues All-Star Game.

“One of the things we're trying to do is make sure that we go back to the beginning of when black people started playing baseball all the way through modern times,’’ Hall of Fame President Josh Rawitch said. “These two guys, what they've accomplished both as players and managers, what they've seen and what they've experienced, we think are really important voices in the exhibit.’’

The Hall of Fame also will have Hall of Famers Lee Smith, Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield as part of the exhibit.

“It’s important that we also find a way to take this whole project outside of Cooperstown and share it virtually with schools across the country," Rawitch said. “We’re excited about this."

Around the basepaths

– The New York Yankees would prefer to trade for Chicago White Sox ace Dylan Cease instead of signing free agent Blake Snell, but they are at a standstill with the White Sox. They refuse to part with top outfield prospect Spencer Jones in any package for Cease while the White Sox are insisting on him.

– The Yankees say they will not consider a short-term deal or early opt-outs with Snell because of a luxury-tax surcharge. They offered a five-year, $150 million contract for Snell in January but there was no counter-offer. If the Yankees signed Snell, they would be taxed at 110% while also losing two draft picks.

– The Los Angeles Angels think that if they had been willing to match the Dodgers’ offer of 10 years, $700 million for Shohei Ohtani, he’d still be with the team. But while the Dodgers were thrilled with the record deferrals, Angels owner Arte Moreno had no interest in the delayed payments.

– Ohtani is expected to make his Dodgers’ spring-training debut Tuesday at Camelback Ranch. The Dodgers sold out their entire spring training season-ticket package and can’t keep Ohtani jerseys on the shelves with the high demand. It may take until mid-summer for the Dodgers to have enough Ohtani jerseys to keep in stock.

– The San Francisco Giants offered DH J.D. Martinez a one-year, $14 million contract, which he rejected, seeking a two-year deal. The Giants then turned to Jorge Soler, signing him to a three-year, $42 million contract.

– The Dodgers are expected to hire former All-Star outfielder Matt Kemp in an advisory role in their organization.

– If the Chicago Cubs did not pursue and hire manager Craig Counsell, friends say he was planning to go to Cleveland to replace Terry Francona.

– Union chief Tony Clark says he’s still concerned that shaving two seconds off the pitch clock this season with runners on base, from 20 seconds to 18, could lead to pitching injuries.

"When fatigue happens, you're more susceptible to injury," Clark said. "We're seeing a lot of injuries, and we're seeing them in a way that simply can't remove the question of whether or not shortening recovery time is in anyone's best interest."

Clark believes that MLB should have kept the rules in place from a year ago. The average time of game was cut by 24 minutes to 2:40 last season, the quickest games since 1984, and Clark believes MLB should not force the players to make another adjustment.

“That’s a conversation that should have warranted a much longer dialogue than what we had," Clark says. “We voiced those concerns, players voiced those concerns, and yet, the push through of the change to the pitch clock still happened. …

"We just had the biggest adjustment this league has ever seen in regards to length of game and how the game was affected by including a clock," Clark said. "Rather than give us another year to adjust and adapt to it, why are we adjusting again, and what are the ramifications going to be?"

– The Mets are not only expected to strongly pursue, but could be among the favorites for outfielder Juan Soto when he’s a free agent next winter.

– While the Mets say that Kodai Senga is likely to start the season on the IL, the team is privately anxious about how much time their ace could miss.

– Arizona Diamondbacks GM Mike Hazen said he was in awe meeting Shohei Ohtani at the New York Baseball Writers dinner and was trying to get the courage to ask for a selfie with him.

The D-backs and Dodgers play 13 times during the regular season, so there will be plenty of opportunities.

–Tony Clark on the Oakland A’s still trying to decide where they will play for the next three years beginning in 2025: “I’ve been pretty consistent in that it needed to happen yesterday. The longer this conversation goes on, the more detrimental it is in the grand scheme of things. Whether it's Sacramento, whether it's Salt Lake, whether it's somewhere else, decisions need to be made sooner rather than later."

– Phillies owner John Middleton after losing in the NLCS to the Arizona Diamondbacks:

“If you’re using the phrase, ‘Get over it,’ it’ll never happen,” Middleton told the Philadelphia Inquirer.. “I mean, ‘09, ‘10, and ‘11 still hurt. You don’t get second chances to win that year. To be up 2-0 [in the series] and heading to a place [Arizona] where you took three out of four in August and lose two out of three, and then lose two at home, when you have your foot on your enemy’s throat, you kill ‘em. And we didn’t do it.

“I’m angry. It’s a funny word to use, but when you lose like that, I get angry. And frankly, if people don’t get at least a little angry, I’m not sure you care enough.”

– The Padres never gave Xander Bogaerts a heads up that he was switching from shortstop to second base until spring training for the simple reason they were trying to trade Ha-Seong Kim, who now moves to shortstop.

– Bruce Bochy, who managed Pablo Sandoval in San Francisco, on Sandoval’s return to the Giants as a 37-year-old non-roster invitee: "I knew he had the drive, the passion to get back in, so good for him. He worked hard. He has always loved the game and I can see, even when he's done, he should stay in the game as a coach or whatever he wants to do, because the guy plays the game the way you love players to play. He has the joy and enthusiasm."

– Congrats to Eric Hosmer, who announced his retirement after a fabulous career as a World Series champion and four-time Gold Glove winner.

He’s still being paid $26 million over the next two years by the Padres.

– The Texas Rangers hired Brett Bochy, 36, the son of Bruce Bochy, to be a first-year scout. It runs in the family. Joe Bochy, the older brother of Bruce, was a long-time amateur and professional scout.

– The Washington Nationals were seeking $2.4 billion when the Lerner family took the team off the market.

– Boston Red Sox veteran reliever Liam Hendriks became the latest ex-White Sox player to expose the problems the White Sox had in the clubhouse last year.

“We had too many guys pulling in different directions, too many cooks in the kitchen trying to fix what they thought was [wrong],” Hendriks told the Chicago Sun-Times. “There’s a lot of Type-A people in a clubhouse. You’ve got certain people thinking, ‘This is the way it’s got to go.’ Certain people want to fix something, so they just scream and yell until someone fixes it. There wasn’t, honestly, enough positivity and eagerness to go out there and play on a day-to-day basis.”

– Former All-Star outfielder Carlos Gomez, 38, is training to become a cyclist for the Dominican Republic.

– Dodgers All-Star Mookie Betts on the new uniforms that has drawn widespread criticism: “It doesn’t matter to me. If we’re worrying about uniforms, I couldn’t care less. As long as I’ve got one on.”

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB rumors: Free agency drags into spring training. But don't panic.