- The Washington Times - Monday, February 15, 2021

The MLB offseason — often dubbed the “Hot Stove” for the rapid and rampant wheeling and dealing for free agents — has long simmered down to the faintest of boils. This winter, especially, proved particularly tepid.

That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, not after a shortened 2020 campaign without fans in the stands due to the coronavirus pandemic. Front offices were left to deal with significant revenue losses and an overall air of uncertainty for how the upcoming season will play out.

But even amid the unknown that the coming weeks and months will bring, one constant remained: MLB’s biggest free agent names still got paid — and paid well. Only, perhaps not as well as past offseasons. 

Trevor Bauer, for instance, became baseball’s highest-paid player when he signed a three-year, $102 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The star pitcher will earn $40 million in 2021 and $45 million in 2022, with options to opt-out after either season.

The Toronto Blue Jays made a splash, securing outfielder George Springer on a six-year, $150 million deal. Catcher J.T. Realmuto returned to the Philadelphia Phillies for five years, $115.5 million, and outfielder Marcell Ozuna rejoined the Atlanta Braves at a four-year, $65 million price tag.

Those deals pale in a sense to last offseason’s spending, which included Stephen Strasburg returning to Washington with a seven-year, $245 million contract and Anthony Rendon leaving the Nationals for the Los Angeles Angels for seven years, $245 million. The New York Yankees, as they often do, made the biggest move, nabbing Gerrit Cole for nine years and $324 million.

But there are a number of factors that make this offseason different than ones in the past.

Coming off a 60-game season, slumps or surges for players were magnified, leaving teams uncertain whether 2020 trends could be trusted. The collective bargaining agreement between the league and players’ association expires in December. Up until last week, teams didn’t know whether the designated hitter would be extended to the National League or not.

Plus, the pandemic caused severe disruptions to club revenue streams — franchises lost about 50% of their revenue on average.

“The player salaries were adjusted prorate for the number of games, so they got 60 over 162, which is about 37% of their normal salaries,” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College who has consulted in the sports industry. “But the owners lost a lot more than 37% of their revenue. They virtually lost all of their stadium-related revenue and some of their TV revenue.

“So there were massive losses, and I think the issue for this year is nobody knows what’s going to happen.”

Spring training opens Wednesday, and under new health and safety protocols, players are required to quarantine for five days upon arrival in Florida or Arizona. Players will wear Kinexon contact tracing devices, and the league will dole out fines to anyone off the field not wearing a mask while at the stadium — all in an attempt to prevent any major coronavirus outbreaks.

Should spring training go without a hitch, MLB plans to play a full 162-game season in home markets. Some clubs will allow limited numbers of fans in the stands; the New York Mets and Yankees will each have 10% capacity.

But those minimal crowds won’t make up enough of the revenue losses, creating another season in which teams will likely lose money.

“This year looks pretty dismal,” Zimbalist said. “Hopefully it’ll be better than last year. And hopefully we’ll play a full season. But in terms of revenue generation, it’s just really unclear.”

That uncertainty led to a cautious free agent market, one in which most players earned short-term deals after experiencing long waits for the phone to ring with any offers at all. According to Spotrac, a website that tracks contract data in professional sports, just 27 of the 111 players signed this offseason inked deals longer than a single season.

Many players, such as the Yankees’ D.J. LeMahieu, signed for less than what the fair market price might’ve been in a normal offseason. LeMahieu rejoined New York on a six-year, $90 million deal, but the 32-year-old infielder is coming off a season in which he hit a league-best .364.

Several teams, the Washington Nationals among them, only brought players in on one-year contracts, choosing short-term options that allow for flexibility in coming years.

But the big names on the market — Bauer, Springer, Realmuto and Ozuna — still found homes with big paydays despite a slow market and revenue losses across the league. Only, those deals were more few and far between and a tick below the lucrative level some stars made in the past.

“To be conservative doesn’t mean you don’t make a splash now and then and make a bet,” Zimbalist said. “The Dodgers made a multi-year offer for Bauer, but probably not what he would’ve gotten if this was the beginning of last offseason or two offseasons ago.”

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