Mid-February is usually a fantastic time to be a baseball fan. Pitchers and catchers have reported to Florida and Arizona, leading to tons of stories about who is in competition for a roster spot, who is in the best shape of their life, and oodles of cell phone videos shot through fences of simulated games. Ahh, spring training.

But this year the start of spring training also has raised some red flags, as some of the premiere free agents of the offseason remain unsigned. And it’s not just the headliners of 31-year-old two-time Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell and 28-year-old former MVP Cody Bellinger who remain on the sidelines, but Jordan Montgomery, Julio Urias, Matt Chapman, and numerous steady role players and bounce-back candidates.

While these players have all been linked to teams, it is truly shocking that none have found homes yet, especially since Snell, Bellinger, Montgomery, and Chapman were among the top five or six free agents with MLB experience on the market this year. But maybe it shouldn’t be. After all, it was only a few years ago before the new Collective Bargaining Agreement that winters like this were the norm.

Following the 2022 lockout it looked like free agency had returned to normal, with teams, including the Mets shelling out huge sums for coveted free agents. But this year has made the 22-23 offseason look like a blip on the radar in the sport’s labor relations battle. While MLB can point to huge sums of money paid by teams this year, headlined by Shohei Ohtani’s $700 million mega-deal, there is no denying the sport is not well when players in their prime coming off Cy Youngs, Gold Gloves and All-Star selections can’t find jobs.

Spotrac’s data show that only four teams (Yankees, Mets, Astros and Phillies) currently exceed the $237 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold for 2024. Only the two New York teams exceed the threshold by more than $1 million. In 2023, seven teams exceeded the threshold, with the Los Angeles Angels staying just under after waiving five players at the end of August.

Escalating penalties for exceeding the threshold, along with harsher penalties by exceeding for $20 million-or-more have turned the CBT into a de facto salary cap. That much has been evident for years, but teams are becoming increasingly averse to going over the threshold.

Part of that probably stems from the expanded playoffs instituted for 2022. With 12 teams making the playoffs, the incentive to spend on, say, bolstering your rotation with Montgomery, is less than it was previously. The MLB playoffs are largely a crapshoot, so who cares if you are the three seed or the six seed? And of course, there are more teams who can convince themselves in January that they are well-positioned for the six seed than before.

It is disheartening to see that there are so many players who could make 25-or-so teams better, including the Mets, available to sign who haven’t found a suitor yet by late February. If not for the CBT, it is truly hard to imagine that Steve Cohen would implement a “wait until 2025” approach to the Mets. They would be going for it, just like they went for it in 2024.

Maybe the Mets can be a surprise and make a nice run to a wild card spot, but if they don’t, remember that the reason is that they chose to punt the 2024 season because of the CBT penalties. Any league that incentivizes teams to choose to not be competitive is not a healthy league.

Ohtani and others prove that clubs are still willing to shell out big bucks for top-tier free agents, but baseball’s ever-shrinking middle class and even upper-middle class continue to struggle to find work. If this trend continues over the next few offseasons, it could make for very contentious labor negotiations in 2026.

8 comments on “Not-So-Hot Stove troubling sign of the MLB times

  • Brian Joura

    While the Dodgers’ payroll may be under the initial tax line, in part because of the deferred money in the Ohtani deal, their estimated CBT payroll is over the fourth level, the so-called Cohen Tax. When we look at the estimated CBT payroll, rather than just payroll dollars, seven teams are over the initial tax line, with the Rangers being close to making it an eighth team.

    I haven’t been following the rumors around the unsigned free agents. But two things jump to mind. First, many of those players have draft-pick compensation attached to them, which certainly hurts their market. Second, are the remaining free agents still available because no one is making competitive offers or because they are looking for unrealistic dollars/years?

    It’s one thing if Montgomery is still available because he’s looking for a 7-year deal. It’s another thing if no one has offered more than 3/$60 for him.

  • Boomboom

    I agree that Cohen and Stearns would likely be fine paying Montgomerh between 22-25 million a yr for the next 3 or 4 yrs. But not 44–50. A shame bc I think Bellinger, Monty and Snell would all make varying degrees of sense on creative incentive laden contracts.

  • Dan Capwell

    I totally get the Mets avoiding both players with QOs attached as well as anyone blocking a younger player this year. They’re spending what, $75M on guys no longer on the roster so they could acquire, and one assumes, play younger players in 2024.

    It would be a Keystone Kops-like maneuver to then turn around and cough up major dollars for what are essentially only slightly-above average replacements, while blocking the pathways of the guys you burned millions of dollars on to pick up. Say what you will about Cohen, this doesn’t look like his M.O.

    The time to swoop in on an expensive veteran would be in July, and only if they are actually holding one of the 6 playoff spots.

  • NYM6986

    You always hope your team makes a splash in the off-season whether its trades or free agent signings and while the Mets loaded up with various options, several of which were bullpen pieces, you have to be disappointed that they did not land a front line pitcher. I would not pay what Monty or Snell want as it is an absurd amount of money for what you are getting, and perhaps before the bell rings some of those free agents will take a two year deal at less then what they are looking for now, giving the Mets a chance for a two year commitment that does not tie them up fiscally for the future. I believe the team will score runs, but am very apprehensive about the rotation.

  • TexasGusCC

    How about we just realize that teams know one player doesn’t win a pennant. What have Ohtani and Trout done? Where’s the pitching? How about the mighty Dodgers? Building a good t e a m means many plus players, not a few. And that’s what free agents don’t care about.

    In today’s MLBTR, we are told Snell had rejected 6/$150 from the Yankees before Stroman. What an insult!!! A mere $25MM per year. How is that turning out?

    From The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney today:
    “ MESA, Ariz. – With Cody Bellinger still unsigned on the first day of full-squad workouts, Chicago Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts signaled he won’t be the one to broker a deal between president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer and agent Scott Boras.

    “I don’t talk to Scott,” Ricketts said Monday. “One of his signature moves is to go talk to the owner. But I think when you do that, you undermine the credibility of your general manager. You’re kind of inserting yourself into that negotiation. I don’t think that helps.””

    ““Free agency is about recruiting players,” Boras told The Athletic. “It’s the normal owner’s signature move to be involved in the efforts of recruiting players and reaching out to me so I can convey to the player the ownership of the team covets them. That is the essence of free agency, and it is a custom and practice for ownership to express commitment and involvement.”
    Well, I like the NBA model. It has a floor and a ceiling. But, because baseball owners won’t open their books, players won’t ever accept that. Plus, the NBA has payroll brackets for the best players and a home team exemption that allows a team to pay much more in order to keep their own player. Anyway, I also like the soap opera and enjoy seeing people turn down $25MM a year because they’re insulted.

    • TexasGusCC

      “”We let Jed make all the decisions on where he’s going to allocate his resources,” Ricketts said. “With respect to Bellinger, I’m like everyone else. We’re just waiting. We’re waiting for whenever he and his agent are going to engage. It could be anytime now or it could be a few weeks.

      “We’re just going to wait until they get serious.””
      Wow, what a line!!!

  • Metsense

    The Players Unions should push that Free Agency should be without the restrictions for the players. No qualifying offers and no draft penalties for team that spends beyond the negotiated threshold.
    Apparently Bellinger, Snell, Montgomery, and Chapman are somewhat effected by those rules. They didn’t price their market adequately. I don’t be grudge any player salary and demands. I don’t begrudge the owners that don’t want to pay their salary demands . That is capitalism, Free Agency restrictions are not.

  • T.J.

    I most often side with the worker over the employer, given the long history of worker exploration of humans since history was recorded. However….the current rules were collectively bargained, and this is more about Boras guys pushing the market than feeling sad for the players. The Met payroll is the tops in the league, with 110% penalties, primarily because aged better and we’re way overpaid. Some players want it both ways. Perhaps Scherzer can kick $30 million into the Snell Go Fund Me site.

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