Detroit – Last year, in the final two weeks of November leading into the Winter Meetings, the Detroit Tigers traded for Francisco Rodriguez and Cameron Maybin and signed free agent Jordan Zimmermann.
This year, other than trading Maybin to the Angels -- crickets.
That’s been the soundtrack of this Hot Stove season thus far – crickets. Josh Reddick, Kendrys Morales, Brett Cecil and Jason Castro are the only players to sign multi-year deals. The big names – Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen, Aroldis Chapman, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion – are still firmly on the board.
The obvious reason for the relative silence, of course, is the pending expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement on Thursday. Without a new one in place, teams don’t know where the luxury tax threshold is going to be -- $189 million like it’s been, or, as has been predicted, over $200 million – and thus don’t know precisely how much they can spend.
The threshold isn’t believed to be a sticking point in the negotiations, and teams probably have a general idea of what it’s going to be. But until they know for sure, how can they justify committing $25-$30 million annually to a free agent -- especially teams who either paid the tax or were right up against it last year.
And, if you are representing one of these players in negotiations, why wouldn’t you wait to see exactly how much money teams can spend? Why would you rush to make a deal now and risk leaving money on the table, when it’s a virtual certainty that the tax threshold will increase?
So, what is normally a busy week leading into the Winter Meetings, which begin Sunday outside Washington, D.C., could be excruciatingly quiet.
These things are fluid and they change quickly. A mega-signing could happen at any moment. The owners and players’ association resumed their talks in Dallas Monday. A deal could come together quickly – at least a partial deal where the tax threshold could be set – and the floodgates could open before the end of the week.
But as it stands now – crickets.
And how, you ask, does that impact the Tigers? They are, for all intents and purposes, sellers. They aren’t shopping for high-priced free agents. They are committed to reducing their $216 million payroll, not adding to it. General Manager Al Avila has made it clear, he’s willing to listen to offers on any of his veteran players – including Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, Ian Kinsler and J.D. Martinez.
He also made it clear he wasn’t holding a fire sale and that the payroll adjustment wasn’t going to happen quickly.
Even without the CBA drama, the Tigers, for leverage purposes, likely would have waited for the big dominos to fall on the free-agent market before whittling down their best trade options.
But on top of that, the uncertainty over the luxury tax threshold impacts the Tigers’ ability to trade big-salaried players the same way it impacts teams looking to make a big-money commitment to a free agent.
You would think trading Kinsler and J.D. Martinez wouldn’t be impacted as much. Martinez has one year left at $11.75 million and Kinsler one year left at $11 million, with a $5 million buyout for 2018.
But Kinsler, who can veto trades to 10 teams, has made it known through his agent that he won’t waive his no-trade clause without an extension to his contract. The Dodgers, a team on his no-trade list, had shown interest in making a deal for him until they got wind of the extension requirement.
Martinez has generated a lot of interest around the league. But, again, the uncertainty over the CBA may be holding things up – possibly on both ends. At issue here isn’t the tax threshold, but the potentially changing rules pertaining to free agents.
It’s likely the new CBA will do away with the qualifying offer teams had been able to tag on free agents, which assured them compensation (a draft pick).
Without the qualifying offer, teams that trade for Martinez would know they were getting a one-year player, with no assurance of being able to work out a long-term deal or getting a draft pick.
Taking the long view
That would perhaps lesson the Tigers’ leverage in the short-term. It might be more prudent for the Tigers to wait until the 2017 trade deadline when Martinez’s value, assuming his production stays constant, would be higher and contending teams would perhaps be more desperate to add a right-handed, power-hitting outfielder.
There have been rumblings around the league that while Avila has made all his veteran players available for trade, his asking price has been exorbitant. Well, we should hope so. If the White Sox were asking for four or five top prospects for Chris Sale, why would the Tigers ask less for Verlander or Cabrera?
Avila, smartly, has been aggressive about this. He’s not bargaining from a point of weakness. His stance has been, “I have a handful of elite-level, high-impact veteran players here. Here’s what they are worth. Here’s what I want in return. Take it or leave it.”
It’s the right approach for now. Avila doesn’t have to get the payroll down under the tax threshold until the end of the season – that’s when the tax is applied. The value of these players, particularly Kinsler and Martinez, isn’t likely to decrease and could be at its highest point at the trade deadline.
Think back to the 2015 trade deadline. Then-general manager Dave Dombrowski hung on to free agents-to-be Cespedes and David Price nearly to the last moment, insisting on Michael Fulmer be in the Cespedes deal, insisting Matt Boyd and Daniel Norris be in the Price deal.
Good things sometimes do come to those who wait.