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Three observations about MLB’s hot stove offseason that have little to do with money

free agent: baseball

Although baseball’s headlines this offseason have been dominated by how much clubs have spent on free agents – the Los Angeles Dodgers, in particular – that’s not what has been particularly striking about this year’s MLB free agency period.

Spending gobs of money on free agents, after all, is kind of the point of baseball’s offseason; the gobs just keep getting larger.

Instead, there are three other takeaways that have stood out about this free-agent market: how slowly it has moved; how pitching-heavy it is; and the impact international players are having on America’s Pastime.

Free agent market is moving really slow

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Start with the pace. Glacier-like seems to be an appropriate characterization.

Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in just about a month. And of the Top 50 free agents in this class – ranked by MLBTraderumors.com – 24 were still looking for jobs. That’s basically half of the best available players still unemployed in mid-January.

A sluggish pace happens on occasion. Free agency frenzies, like everything in the sport, are hard to predict. Some years, they just take longer than others. What’s interesting in 2024, though, is that this free agency class is a solid one. So, it’s not for lack of talent.

Some of the names still on the board include a former MVP (Cody Bellinger) a reigning Cy Young Award winner (Blake Snell), one of the game’s best relievers (Josh Hader), a two-time Platinum Glove winner (Matt Chapman) and a recent postseason hero (Jordan Montgomery). If one team signed all five, they’d have a pretty strong nucleus going forward.

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So, if it is not quality, what’s been the holdup this offseason?

Let’s blame it on the Dodgers. Or their top new employees anyway. The first part of the offseason was delayed while two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani picked his next team. Only a few clubs had the wherewithal to land Ohtani, who received a record $700 million deal, but regardless, the market stalled somewhat as Ohtani deliberated.

Some teams, such as the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, took advantage of the Ohtani interruption to add to their rosters, but most didn’t. Once Ohtani agreed with the Dodgers, the next domino that had to fall was 25-year-old Japanese pitcher Yoshinobu Yamamoto, the best arm in Japan’s Pacific League.

Yamamoto ultimately signed last month with the Dodgers for 12 years and $325 million, setting the pitching market for this winter. It sent a message to other clubs looking for quality pitchers: Arms will be more expensive than ever before.

That theme holds true not only for free-agent pitchers such as Snell, Montgomery and Hader but also aces in the potential trade market including Milwaukee’s Corbin Burnes, Cleveland’s Shane Bieber and Dylan Cease of the Chicago White Sox.

The hot stove will soon heat up – it has to with the clock ticking – but the prices and demand for pitching won’t cool down.

And that leads to observation No. 2.

Lots of free agent hitters are still on the board

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Of the Top 35 ranked free agents for 2024, 22 have signed. Fifteen have been pitchers (not including Ohtani). That means only seven of the top 12 hitters have been inked by mid-January. Certainly, some intriguing offensive names have been moved this offseason in trades, led by outfielder Juan Soto (as well as Alex Verdugo, Mitch Haniger and Jarred Kelenic).

But it’s obvious that pitching is the focus here, even though free-agent arms are among the most volatile commodities in baseball given that most have logged significant innings already. This class was certainly deeper in pitching than offense, but it’s still surprising to see some quality hitters without jobs.

Among the position players still awaiting employment are Bellinger, Chapman, Jorge Soler, J.D. Martinez, Rhys Hoskins, Whit Merrifield and Justin Turner.

The biggest deal so far for a free-agent hitter is for a player that hasn’t had an at-bat in the majors. The San Francisco Giants signed Korean outfielder Jung Hoo Lee to a six-year, $113 million deal. He’s 25, a former MVP in Korea and has elite contact skills. But he is an unknown commodity in the states.

He also represents an interesting trend this winter – or Observation No. 3. Teams are giving multi-year deals to Asian-born players, even if they haven’t stepped on an MLB field.

Free agent money is going to overseas players

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Ohtani is obviously a two-way unicorn, and one of the most impactful men to ever play the game. He’s an established superstar here and certainly not the first Asian-born player to be a major force in MLB. In 2025, Japan’s Ichiro Suzuki will almost certainly be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, on his first ballot.

But Ohtani’s success continues to fuel the mutual interest between Asian players and MLB clubs, and that’s been evident this offseason.

So far this winter, MLB teams have signed five players directly from Asian pro leagues for a combined 30 years and a whopping $524.5 million. The contracts of Lee and Yamamoto absorb most of that money, but the Chicago Cubs inked Japanese lefty Sh­õta Imanaga to five years and a guaranteed $54 million and the San Diego Padres agreed to terms with two relievers, Japan’s Yuki Matsui (five years, $28 million) and Korea’s Woo-Suk Go (two years, $4.5 million).

Four of the five are pitchers – keeping with the trend of this offseason while potentially helping further bolster another one for 2025 and beyond.

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