Major League Baseball's offseason has finally started to pick up steam. In the past two weeks, All-Star talents Blake Snell, Yu Darvish, Francisco Lindor, and Carlos Carrasco have each changed teams through trades. It's possible that others, including Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, will join them as stars on the move in the coming weeks.
While the top of the trade market has been active lately, the top of the free-agent market has remained stuck in neutral. Coming into Sunday, only one of CBS Sports' top 20 free agents had signed a multi-year pact this winter -- that being Mets catcher James McCann. The other top-20 free agents to sign (Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman) were those who accepted their teams' one-year qualifying offer at the winter's onset.
What, exactly, will it take for the free agent market to get going? Below, we've highlighted four potential accelerants.
1. Clarity on next season
As it stands, MLB's season is supposed to begin April 1. It remains unclear if that will be the case. Team sources who have talked to CBS Sports in recent weeks are of the mindset that the start of the season could be pushed back into mid-May, that way there's more time for the COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Not only would the season then be played under safer conditions, but the pandemic's improved state would allow for more gate revenue.
The problem is the same as with the universal designated hitter: both amendments require the league and the union to agree to terms, and that happens about as frequently as dodo bird sightings. The Athletic's Evan Drellich recently reported that spring training is still expected to start on time. For those keeping track, that's just over a month away now.
Teams should be getting to the point where they're applying the finishing touches to their roster. Yet, for as long as the start date remains more of a concept than a reality -- meaning there's no pressing deadline ahead -- teams are likely to wait and try to extract as much leverage as they can to get the cheapest possible deals.
2. Springer, Bauer inking deals
Catcher J.T. Realmuto was always expected to have a lengthier free agent process because of the clash between his rumored desired term and teams' reluctance to give blockbuster deals to backstops. That puts the onus on the other top free agents, outfielder George Springer and right-hander Trevor Bauer, to set the market.
Reports had Springer deciding between two teams, the Mets and the Blue Jays, as the holiday season winded down. (It's unclear how the Mets' recent acquisitions of Lindor and Carrasco impacted their pursuit.) Once Springer signs, and with whomever it proves to be, he'll provide contractual guideposts for most of the other top free-agent hitters.
The same effect can be applied to Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young Award winner. One source recently told CBS Sports that it's getting hard to find real rotation help on the trade market. In theory, that should help funnel attention to Bauer.
3. ...or, at least, LeMahieu
DJ LeMahieu isn't the best free agent available, but he might be the most important player on the free agent market because of what he means for the middle-infield market and some of the league's top spenders.
The Yankees, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, and Blue Jays have all been reported as expressing interest in adding LeMahieu. Once he signs, it stands to reason the clubs who missed out will move on to their respective Plan Bs. That domino effect should help define and expedite the markets for Justin Turner, Andrelton Simmons, Marcus Semien, and Didi Gregorius.
Of course, it would've been reasonable to suggest the same dynamic could be at play with new Padres infielder Ha-Seong Kim. So far, that hasn't proven to be true.
4. More trades
As silly as it sounds, there's always the possibility that a few more trades will prove to be the cure for what ails the free agent market.
The thinking goes like this, at some point, the players who are on the block will be less appealing than those who are on the market -- or, in more direct terms, the deals found through trades (and it's been a buyer's market to date) will offer less surplus value than the deals found through free agent contracts. When enough teams reach that conclusion, they should grow more serious about nailing down terms.
Based on recent activity, it would seem that we should be approaching that point sooner than later.