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Everybody’s a spectator this offseason

The White Sox are supposed to be on the sidelines, but what about the rest of baseball?

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MLB: Winter Meetings
Nobody’s announcing anything.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The White Sox were expected to have a slow offseason. Sure, there’s the possibility they could trade Jose Abreu, Avisail Garcia and/or Yolmer Sanchez to really put a stick of dynamite in the pile of rubble, but it’s more likely that Rick Hahn’s dealing would not be accompanied by wheeling this time around.

It’s harder to explain the leaguewide lack of activity. We’re two days from December and Doug Fister is the only free agent of note to find a home, as he signed with the Texas Rangers. What’s more, there isn’t even much in the way of substantial rumors for the top free agents.

Instead, it’s been all about Giancarlo Stanton and Shohei Ohtani, both of which aren’t especially close to resolving at this point. Ohtani will be able to sign starting Dec. 2, but he’ll have three weeks to make up his mind. Stanton could take the whole offseason, although the Marlins are playing hardball with Stanton’s feelings.

According to two sources with knowledge of discussions, the Marlins informed Stanton in October that if he refused to waive his no-trade rights and accept a trade, he would remain a Marlin and team officials would look to trade off other top players to reduce payroll.

But neither should tie up the whole league, because they’re on each end of the financial viability contract. Stanton’s huge contract and no-trade clause limit his market to only a handful of teams, while the restrictions on Ohtani make him an easy fit for all 30 clubs. Scott Boras is lyrically displeased about the latter:

“Now the unsuspecting (2016 Pacific League MVP) no longer has the protection of his Japanese team or the MLB posting rules. He is precocious, greatness cast adrift, forced into the MLB lifeboat. And his admission is handcuffs that prevent him from getting at least what his older, lesser valued peers received—in Tanaka’s case, more than $150 million. Is this an international event or an international incident?”

The Stanton and Ohtani sagas have reasons for dragging on, but they shouldn’t tie up the entire league. Jeff Passan doesn’t buy it either, and in a column for Yahoo Sports, he presented four factors that could be leading teams to take their sweet time.

  1. Teams believe running out the clock on free agents is a way to drive down prices.
  2. Front-office executives are an increasingly homogeneous group, leading to similar valuations.
  3. There have been high levels of coaching staff churn, and the Yankees don’t even have a manager yet.
  4. Ego from management (“You can’t be a genius if you spend on free agents”) ... or pragmatism (“They know how terrible free agency is”).

With fewer ex-players in decision-making roles, a combination of Nos. 2 and 4 make sense to me. The on-field product gets stuck in paralysis by analysis, leading to three-pitcher and six-mound-visit innings, so why wouldn’t specialization affect front offices in the same way?

However, Passan also points to the quantity of players accepting salary-suppressing extensions that delay free agency, which has watered down the open market over the years and given it a bad rap (Jeff Samardzija indirectly warned everybody about this). The next couple of offseasons should prove how intractable front offices have become, because if Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado can’t get teams moving, there’s a bigger labor issue underneath it all.

It will serve as the best litmus test of free agency yet, as a pillar of the sport offers an all-timer class in a moment when the teams harp on the inefficiency of money spent during the winter. If it churns to a stop as this winter has thus far, it may portend something far worse than a market that’s stuck. That is the seed of labor strife, planted in winter, blossoming in spring and imperiling the quarter century of peace that has allowed baseball to grow into this $10 billion-a-year game where everyone wants their piece of the pie.