With spring training scheduled to open in a little more than two weeks, the tension in baseball’s free agent market must be intense. More than 100 players remain available, including almost all of the most accomplished members of the group, and any optimism that Lorenzo Cain’s surprise five-year agreement with the Brewers on Thursday might jar things loose appears unfounded.
Teams continue to underwhelm free agents with offers. Players continue to hold out for higher bids. But at some point, the market will heat up, right?
“It’s inevitable,” Derek Falvey, the Twins’ chief baseball officer, said during TwinsFest last week. “Patience has been the defining characteristic of this market, but eventually deals will get done.”
The timeline has become so condensed now, though, that teams have to beware of getting caught up in the emotion of an overheated market. Making a bad deal is far worse, the Twins feel, than making no deal.
“Sometimes what can lead us down a path towards decisions we regret is momentum,” Falvey said. “We have to make sure that we’re addressing each situation as it fits and find the best decision for us.”
But if the free agent market becomes frantic in early February, one industry-wide game of musical chairs, it’s still unlikely to equal the great feeding frenzy of 1995. That year, more than 100 free agents signed within one week, including 22 high-profile deals struck on one insane Saturday. Think the Twins need to be ready to strike quickly when the logjam breaks? Imagine a day when six former 20-game winners, including two Cy Young winners, changed teams, not to mention a couple of outfielders who are now enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a little hard to imagine,” laughed Falvey, who was in grade school in Massachusetts at the time.
The busiest week in baseball history was triggered by Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was a federal judge in Manhattan at the time. She issued an injunction the day before Opening Day preventing MLB owners from starting the season with replacement players. The players union had been on strike since the previous August, forcing cancellation of the World Series, but when Sotomayor blocked the owners’ plans to replace them, the players agreed to end the strike and play under the previous year’s financial rules.
An appeals court upheld Sotomayor’s ruling on April 2, ending the strike, and MLB announced the shortened season would begin on April 26, giving teams only three weeks to negotiate contracts, make trades, set rosters and hold a brief training camp. There were roughly as many free agents at the time as there are now, and they scrambled to find new contracts.
Making matters even more uncertain, Montreal Expos owner Claude Brochu, whose team had the best record in the game when the players walked out, ordered his payroll to be reduced to $15 million, forcing the trades of star players Marquis Grissom to Atlanta, Ken Hill to St. Louis and John Wetteland to the Yankees, and allowing outfielder Larry Walker to sign with Colorado. Those deals only added to the craziness.
Some players jumped quickly. Orel Hershiser, a Cy Young winner with the Dodgers, was one of the first, signing a contract with Cleveland. Dave Winfield, at the end of a career that got him to Cooperstown, left the Twins and signed with the Indians, too. Pitcher Kevin Brown was snapped up by the Orioles, Jim Abbott landed with the White Sox, Bob Tewksbury became a Cardinal and Andre Dawson went to the Marlins. The Royals, fearing big financial losses due to the strike, traded Cy Young winner David Cone to the Blue Jays and center fielder Brian McRae to the Cubs.
With so many players looking for work, the player’s association set up a training camp of its own in Homestead, Fla., for free agents to work out while they waited for offers. About 25 players attended, with one or two siphoned off each day as their agents struck deals.
The Twins, also worried about repercussions from the strike and fearing the possible departure of Kirby Puckett after the season, were mostly uninvolved in the flurry of deals, though righthander Greg Harris was plucked from the free-agent camp. That turned out to be a miscalculation; in seven appearances for the Twins, Harris went 0-5 with an 8.82 ERA, the end of an eight-year career.
There was a big signing dominating the news in Minneapolis that week. But it was Cris Carter, signing the biggest contract in Vikings history.