Age Is Just a Number as M.L.B. Teams Drop $2 Billion on Free Agents
SAN DIEGO — Money was flying and the clock was spinning when Mets General Manager Billy Eppler emerged from his suite late Wednesday afternoon on the final day of the winter meetings to announce that Justin Verlander indeed had signed a two-year, $86.6 million deal with the club.
There was still plenty of work to be done, roster holes to fill, championship aspirations to chase. Would the Verlander deal leave enough in the owner Steven A. Cohen’s budget for Eppler to address some of those gaps in impactful ways?
“I think the biggest takeaway here is that Steve’s committed to winning,” Eppler said, and barely 24 hours later the club was in agreement to bring back outfielder Brandon Nimmo on an eight-year, $162 million contract. “He talked about that in his introductory news conference. He talked about that again last year when we were going in shortly after I got hired, and we made some of those signings.
“The commitment remains very evident to this day that he and Alex are making to the community, the fan base, the City of New York. It’s showing.”
Like the Mets, teams throughout the industry were in a spending mood this week. Freed from the constraints of the owner-induced, 99-day lockout a year ago that brought the business of baseball to an icy winter halt, many clubs saw nothing but green lights and blank checks this week amid the palm trees at the Manchester Grand Hyatt.
Major League Baseball teams so far this winter have guaranteed more than $2 billion in salaries to Verlander, Nimmo, Aaron Judge (nine years, $360 million, Yankees), Trea Turner (11 years, $300 million, Phillies), Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million, Padres), Jacob deGrom (five years, $185 million, Rangers), Masataka Yoshida (five years, $90 million, Red Sox), Willson Contreras (five years, $87.5 million, Cardinals) and Taijuan Walker (four years, $72 million, Phillies), among others.
The money has gone to pitchers and outfielders, sluggers and speedsters, young players and — especially eye catching — older players.
Verlander will turn 40 during spring training. San Diego’s deal with Bogaerts is the longest ever for a player who has already turned 30, and it ties him to the Padres until he is 41. Likewise, Turner will be 40 when his deal expires. Judge and deGrom will be 39, and Contreras, a catcher, will be 35.
Part of the reason for the long-term deals with high-priced stars is that it allows clubs to stretch the money out over a long period of time, thus lowering the average annual value of a contract. The A.A.V. is an essential component in computing the competitive balance tax. So while the Phillies, for example, may not expect Turner to be the player in his late 30s that he is now, the lower annual salary leaves them more to spend elsewhere before hitting various luxury-tax thresholds that divert money to the smaller franchises via revenue sharing.
Also, advanced training techniques and nutrition can help players extend their primes a bit longer than a they could a generation or two ago when cheeseburgers and fried foods comprised a typical postgame spread.
“How he takes care of himself, understanding his regiment, some of the questions we asked him was how he does keep his body the way he keeps it and some of the things he’s learned over time,” Eppler said regarding why the Mets believed Verlander, coming off a Cy Young Award-winning season at 39, would continue to pitch at an elite level. “This guy is a consummate professional. While the age is what it is, the way his body works and the way his stuff works is a little bit different.”
The overriding takeaway from the week was easy. Elite talent will get a player paid, even when factoring in age, injury history (deGrom) or redundancy (Bogaerts). The Padres already employed two shortstops in Fernando Tatis Jr. and Ha-Seong Kim, yet seriously explored signing Turner before adding Bogaerts.
San Diego, which continues to stun the industry with its financial outlays, currently projects a $235 million payroll for 2023, which would put them among the top few teams in the majors. After failing to land Turner, the Padres met with Judge and his agent, Page Odle, for three hours at Petco Park on Tuesday night and were scheduled to talk again Wednesday before being told via text around 5 a.m. that Judge was returning to the Yankees.
A.J. Preller, San Diego’s president of baseball operations, said his club’s strategy wasn’t simply a matter of casting a wide net so much as it was “player specific” — meaning, when players such as Judge or Turner — two of the best in the game — were available, San Diego at least wanted to see what might work.
Adding Bogaerts most likely means sliding Kim over to second base, moving Jake Cronenworth from second to first base and deploying Tatis Jr. as an outfielder when he returns in mid-April from his performance-enhancing drug suspension and shoulder and wrist surgeries. Bogaerts, who helped the Red Sox win the World Series in 2013 and 2018, leads all M.L.B. shortstops over the past five seasons in on-base percentage (.373), and ranks second in batting average (.301) and slugging percentage (.508).
One possible benefit of adding Bogaerts, beyond his considerable talent, is the flexibility it would give the team should Manny Machado opt out of his contract after the 2023 season.
“I think if there’s a team built to be able to move some guys around, it would probably be us,” San Diego Manager Bob Melvin said this week on the general idea of adding another shortstop before the Bogaerts agreement. “Now, there are probably some tough conversations along the way as far as that goes, but I think with the athletes we have, we’re able to move some guys around and make it fit.”
The two high-profile shortstops left on the free agent market are Carlos Correa and Dansby Swanson, both 28. After San Francisco’s failed run at Judge, Correa appears to be a logical target for the Giants. Among the factors that could play a role: Fans undoubtedly are disappointed the team didn’t land Judge; attendance at Oracle Park in 2022 (2.4 million) was the lowest in a full season since the stadium opened in 2000; the Giants have an aging roster and were 26 games worse in the standings in 2022 than in 2021; and the perennially strong Dodgers and wildly spending Padres are threatening to leave San Francisco far behind.
“As a fan, this is great,” Giants Manager Gabe Kapler said this week before the Judge decision. “It’s really exciting for baseball. Envisioning some of these players in new uniforms and, obviously, the names that we’re all talking about, really excited about the possibility of some of them being Giants.”
He added: “I’ve been coming to the winter meetings for a lot of years, and obviously we’ve had some breaks for various reasons, but this is the most exciting time that I can remember.”
With the new labor deal running through the end of the 2026 season, clubs can operate with certainty regarding business operations and fans can invest emotionally without worrying about a work stoppage.
“The free agent market’s going to be what it is, right?” Commissioner Rob Manfred said during an appearance at a Baseball Writers’ Association of America meeting this week. “It’s the product of a whole bunch of economic forces and individual decisions by clubs as to what they want to do.
“On the positive side, I think, a week in December where there’s a ton of focus on players and where they’re going to be is a good thing in terms of marketing the game. And on the downside, I think everyone in this room understands that we have a level of revenue disparity in this sport that makes it impossible for some of our markets to compete. It’s some of the numbers we’ve seen. And, you know, that’s not a positive, just, it’s like everything else in life, there’s good and bad.”
With a little more than two months until the start of spring training, the Mets project an M.L.B.-record payroll of $322 million, up from $282 million in 2022. No team has ever crossed the $300 million threshold, and the Mets may not be done spending.
“It’s nice to see some things in the rearview mirror,” Eppler, a San Diego native, said late Wednesday. “My family, who is here, asked if I could get together tonight, and they sent LOL after the text because they know it’s not happening. So I’m going to go upstairs and get to work and stay to work.”
About 24 hours later, Nimmo again was a Met. And the winter maneuverings continued.