If you followed the Winter Meetings at all on Twitter, you would think it was the Writers’ Food Talk Convention, and not a baseball conference revolving around offseason transactions and the Rule 5 draft.
The other side of Twitter was that the Winter Meetings were totally boring, and while I tended the agree with that, I thought to myself that this couldn’t have been the only boring Winter Meetings, right? I was surprised, until I thought about it for a moment, that the Winter Meetings is just going to become even more boring in the future.
To look at this, I had to have some empirical measure, and forgive me for saying that this won’t be totally empirical for the sole reason that: signings and trades are leaked previous to being announced. So while Jon Lester’s signing with the Cubs in 2014 was considered a Winter Meetings event, it didn’t actually occur until December 15th, a few days later. It’s literally impossible to go through the record confirming when the verbal agreement for each deal occurred, so I am forced to only look at transactions that happened during the Meetings itself.
Regardless of that one caveat, you’ll see a general trend going on here, and it’s not great:
From 2006 to 2015, the average number of transactions that transpired during the Winter Meetings was 19, or about five per day, depending on the length of the event. Over the last three seasons, that number declined to just 14.3, good for about one fewer transaction per day. Over the last two seasons in particular, there have only been 23 total transactions, and fewer than ten in each category of major league signings and trades.
One major change can account for this, and it’s the new CBA. In the past, without the specter of the luxury tax seemingly haunting larger market teams, the early period of the offseason was for acquisitions of all stripes; teams didn’t have to worry about “fitting” a player because if they didn’t, the penalties were par for the course. For a team like the Yankees or Dodgers that went over frequently, the calculus was no more complicated than “calculate the salary based on 50% extra for every dollar over the cap.”
Now there are draft penalties, differing penalties and payout structures for each year that one goes over the cap. While the Red Sox went over last year, reports indicate they look to shed salary even after winning the World Series. The Yankees have remained non-committal, and it seems the Dodgers might have an ownership group mandate to get under soon based on debt incurred during the sale.
What FanGraphs found during last year’s ice cold free agency period was that, “[t]he middle class of veterans appears more likely to suffer the brunt of any team strategy to delay signing players,” which means that there will always be signings of top free agents, even during the Winter Meetings, but the days of signing that one-year deal may wait until February when your payroll is nearly set.
Part of the slowness may be random variation; the Robinson Canó trade may very well have happened during the Winter Meetings, but it was earlier! So it goes, but a lot of the “feeling” around slowness may be those periphery deals that fill the gaps between the big ones, and if last year was any indication, you can tell when the bulk of free agents aren’t getting signed, even if you don’t care too much about the one-year reliever types.
I do not attend the Winter Meetings, so this isn’t really a concern for me. Yet just like the trade deadline is supposed to be a baseball event that brings all eyes on the sport, it’s very possible the Meetings are losing that effect as teams front-load trades and large signings at the beginning of the offseason, and then wait until the end to have the dual effect of a) squeezing the middle class of free agents via leverage, and b) having a clearer picture of how close your team is to the tax cap. The Meetings are boring, and that may change in the future, but they may become more common in our post-2016 CBA world.