Every year, the MLB becomes different in some way, and it’s shown by how free agency plays out. In years past, sluggers have landed massive contracts (including Giancarlo Stanton’s 325 million dollar extension), but after seeing a year comprised with dominant pitching staffs (Keuchel and Verlander) and young, cheap bats (Altuve, Springer, Correa), the free agent market is valuing pitching at an all-time high in attempt to combat a league that set a record for most home runs in a season last year.
Winner: Relief Pitchers
As the MLB trends towards a situational game that involves more relief pitchers than ever, having a deep and effective bullpen has been existent on every dominant team for the past few years. Last year saw the previously three richest contracts in MLB history for relief pitchers (Aroldis Chapman at 5yr/86mil, Kenley Jansen at 5yr/80mil, and Mark Melancon at 4yr/62 mil), and the trend is continuing this season.
The Rockies signed Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee, and Wade Davis to monster deals with 106 million dollars guaranteed. Their bullpen will cost upwards of 50 million dollars this year, and no team has ever come close to that value. The Rockies still have a very weak rotation, but they’ve taken the strategy of shortening the game for their starters, who’ve historically struggled mightily at Coors Field.
The demand for starting pitchers and the risk of prospects busting has caused the raise in demand for the bullpen. Instead of paying 200+ million for an ace or trading MLB talent for a chance at a future star, teams are starting to use an extended bullpen that can pitch every night, compared to a starting pitcher who can only pitch once every five days. Last season, the top 6 teams in bullpen and starter ERA made the playoffs, emphasizing the need for a strong staff.
Once considered a secondary need for many teams, bullpen arms are in extremely high demand, and many relief pitchers are taking home contracts before sluggers and rotation aces.
Loser: Big Time Hitters
While bullpen arms are in high demand, the market for All-Star/power hitters has not been strong at all. After a monster year in 2017 that saw Martinez hit over .300 and hit 45 home runs, Martinez might be most deserving of a pay raise. But, going into the new year, Martinez is still a free agent, as teams have been hesitant at meeting his 7-year, 200m+ asking price. While that might almost seem like a bargain (if there is one for that much money) compared to what Bryce Harper or Mike Trout may receive, no team has reeled in J.D. Martinez yet.
Mike Moustakas is another name that hit the free agent market this year, but his stock has fallen fast. After a career season that saw him hit 38 home runs, you’d think Moustakas would have a waiting list. With plenty of postseason experience and an above-average glove, it’s an anomaly that he’s not been signed yet. Other notable players still on the market include Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, and Jay Bruce.
There are many reasons why this could be the case, but the main reason is due to the loaded 2018 free agent class. Next year, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson will headline a group of players who will get paid. Maybe the best bet for some of these free agents is to take a 1-year deal and go back on the market next season. There will be many teams that miss out on the big names and will overpay for inferior options.