It is too early to call this a market correction, or even suggest that Jose Reyes's six-year contract lowers the bar for maximum contract length.
But this much was obvious to Alex Anthopoulos after the first formal day of baseball's winter meetings: the free-agent and trade marketplace is moving slower than usual.
Hey, when the Miami Marlins are leading the charge, as they did Monday in showing off free-agent closer Heath Bell (three years, $27-million) while preparing to unveil Reyes (six years, $106-million), and the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are following the marching orders of accountants, you expected anything else?
Anthopoulos, the Toronto Blue Jays general manager, said that the feeling was "unanimous" among the peers he'd spoken to that both markets are moving, in his words, "very slowly. I even felt that coming into the meetings," said Anthopoulos, who will wait until Wednesday's 11:59 p.m. deadline for Kelly Johnson to accept or reject salary arbitration before moving more aggressively into the second-base market.
"Last year, I remember calling Shaun Marcum at a Chiefs game on the Sunday [Marcum was traded for Brett Lawrie.]It seemed as if we'd been working on that deal forever. This time, it seems like everything is pushed back so much, whether it's the [collective bargaining agreement]or whether it's that the asking price higher than normal. We're not as advanced; I definitely feel we're a few weeks behind where we've been in the past."
If there's a feeding frenzy for Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols, it's been well-disguised. The usual drivers of the premium free-agent market, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, are already locked in at first base with Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez, respectively. So, too, are the Philadelphia Phillies, who are about to embark on the first year of a five-year, $125-million extension with Ryan Howard. Other big-market teams such as the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets are dealing with ownership issues. The Mets are cutting payroll by at least $40-million.
And there are indications that the new labour contract is contributing to the chilling, as both the Yankees and Red Sox attempt to avoid a 50-per-cent luxury-tax hit as repeat offenders. Dipping under the threshold drops their penalty to 17.5 per cent. That has an appeal for the Yankees, who have paid $150-million in luxury tax since 2005 and must deal with the fact that Robinson Cano and Curtis Granderson are eligible for free agency after 2013. GM Brian Cashman told the New York Post earlier this month that his goal is to keep the team's payroll at $189-million from 2014-16.
It seems as though the Chicago Cubs are the only team standing between Fielder and Pujols returning to their own teams, the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals. Yet the Brewers already have $70-million committed to 13 players and want to keep their payroll between $83-million and $85-million, so that's not as easy as it sounds.
Anthopoulos reiterated that he would rather address his team's needs through trade as opposed to free agency. But with Jonathan Papelbon signing for four years, $50-million before the winter meetings and Joe Nathan signing a two-year, $14.5-million deal with the Texas Rangers, the market for free-agent closers is well-established.
Anthopoulos said he has not closed the door on Frank Francisco returning – he spoke with Francisco's agent, Barry Praver, on Monday afternoon – and the Blue Jays continue to be linked with Francisco Cordero, whose option was not exercised by the Cincinnati Reds and who is represented by Jose Bautista's agent, Bean Stringfellow.
Anthopoulos has always said he doesn't feel under pressure to make an announcement at the winter meetings; that he doesn't think getting up on a podium in a hotel meeting room will result in the phones ringing off the hook at the Rogers Centre box office. He'll wait until after these meetings to make the deal he wants, laying groundwork these next two days. The guess here is he'll have company.