SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - When discussing teams' interest in free agent Bryce Harper last year at the general managers meetings, agent Scott Boras cautioned that many suitors would be playing it cool over the winter.
"It's not a regatta," Boras said. "It's a submarine race."
The submarine race finally ended more than three months later, during spring training, with Harper signing a record 13-year, $330 million deal with the Phillies.
As baseball executives and agents gather again Monday at the 2019 GM meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., we can expect another long slog to February for some of the game's biggest free agents, with plenty of speculation and little real movement the next three months.
Several of Boras' clients, including Dallas Keuchel and Nicholas Castellanos, should be on the Cubs' and White Sox's radar. Cubs President Theo Epstein and White Sox general manager Rick Hahn both figure to meet with Boras at some point, whether it's this week or at the winter meetings in San Diego next month.
Boras controls the top three free agents - Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg - along with several others who figure to be highly pursued, including Castellanos, Keuchel, Hyun-Jin Ryu and Mike Moustakas.
Most free agents won't have to wait until spring training to find a team, but the slow development of baseball's free-agency period has become a trend, with many teams rebuilding and downplaying free agency and others trying to avoid paying the luxury tax.
Teams vying for free agents will get plenty of exposure in the offseason, which can't be bad for selling season tickets. But baseball's hot stove league now pales in comparison to the NBA's free-agency period, in which most of the stars receiving the biggest contracts are signed within the first day or week. Having a salary cap, of course, helps move things along, and MLB players aren't about to agree to that, even if some believe the luxury tax serves as a de facto cap.
"Yeah, there was a lot of attention around NBA free agency," MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said during a meeting with baseball writers at the All-Star Game. "They've done a tremendous job in marketing and promoting their players, and have done so over the last three decades to where everything that happens now with those guys, it's a headline. I'd love for our guys to put themselves in the same place."
It takes two to tango, and the slow offseason movement can be blamed on teams waiting out the market for bargains and agents such as Boras trying to create a bidding war. Manny Machado's agent, Casey Close, also waited until spring training to seal a deal with the Padres, who were seldom mentioned in speculation until January.
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As the unofficial ringmaster of baseball's offseason circus, Boras controls the tempo more than any other individual. His agency reportedly has approximately 175 clients, and when he speaks at the GM and winter meetings, dozens of reporters crowd around to hear his every utterance. That annoys some of his peers and amuses many of the executives, some of whom try to predict his metaphor of choice.
Boras can make a convincing argument to any reporter as to why the team he or she covers should be interested in one or more of his clients and usually provides some "humorous" quotes to entertain readers. This week he'll not only be asked about his free-agent clients but other newsworthy topics, such as the players union's service-time grievance over Kris Bryant's delayed call-up in 2015. Bryant didn't get the call until the Cubs were assured he wouldn't be a free agent until after his seventh season in 2021.
The decision on Bryant could have significant ramifications on the Cubs' offseason plans, especially if it's ruled he'll become a free agent next winter, increasing the urgency of contract negotiations.
Aside from targeting potential free agents, executives also get a chance to meet face to face to discuss possible trades, and Epstein, for one, already has said he may be active on the trade front this winter. Last winter the Cardinals acquired Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt, who helped St. Louis end a three-year postseason drought.
The Cubs and Sox need to be active this winter for different reasons. The Cubs need to make some noise with a new manager, David Ross, in place and the new team-owned Marquee Sports Network about to launch. The Sox need to convince their fans the rebuild is progressing in Year 4, and they have many holes to fill, including the rotation, outfield and designated hitter.
Plenty of stars, including Bryant, will see their names bandied about in trade speculation this offseason, whether they get dealt or not. Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, the 2018 American League MVP, also may be shopped by incoming chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom, who reportedly has a mandate to get Boston's payroll under the $208 million luxury-tax threshold.
The GM meetings rarely see any significant deals or signings and are viewed as a prelude to the winter meetings.
But it's an opportunity for team executives to give their fans some hope for the future, and selling hope in the long, cold winter traditionally has been one of baseball's greatest strengths.
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