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Why has the MLB offseason been so slow?

Even the small-market Twins had made their biggest signing of the offseason by this time last year. What’s the hold up?

MLB: General Managers Meetings
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

We’re almost a month into MLB’s offseason free agency period, and here are major the deals that have gone done so far:

  • SP Ryan Carpenter - One-year deal with the Tigers.
  • SP Doug Fister - One-year, $4 million deal with the Rangers (with a team option for 2019).
  • OF Justin Upton - Five-year, $106 million extension with the Angels

There’s been a couple of minor league deals, but otherwise, that’s it. The Twins, along with 26 other teams, have done nothing.

By this time last year, the Twins had already made their big splash of the offseason, signing catcher Jason Castro to a three-year, $24.5 million deal on November 22nd. They weren’t the only ones who had already made deals, either — the Braves had signed both Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey by November 11th; the Angels also signed Jesse Chavez on November 11th; the Astros signed Charlie Morton on November 16th and Josh Reddick November 17th; the Rangers signed Andrew Cashner on November 18th; and the Cardinals signed Brett Cecil on November 19th. Things were happening.

So it’s not just your imagination if you think this offseason has been slow so far. It has been slow. Incredibly slow. Like, watching Bengie Molina running to first base slow.

What’s the hold up? Several writers have recently posited that talks of a possible Giancarlo Stanton trade are the cause of the slow down, but I’m not buying it. I’m sure they have prevented some dominoes from falling, but there’s only a handful of teams realistically interested in the 2017 NL MVP and taking on the berserk 10-years, $285 million still left on his contract. Maybe I’m biased because there has (rightfully) been zero talks about Stanton around these parts, and he certainly isn’t directly holding up anything for the Twins. I’m skeptical Stanton talks are somehow indirectly holding up the entire market.

To me, the much bigger reason for the lack of movement has been Shohei Ohtani.

It might seem like Twinkie Town has turned into the Shohei Ohtani news network lately, but it makes sense that he’s causing most of the hold up, doesn’t it? Unlike Stanton, every single team is interested in Ohtani, and almost all of them (if not all) have at least a viable shot at landing the Japanese superstar. Though no one truly knows what Ohtani is looking for yet, he’s already given out homework to keep every team busy in their pursuit to woo him. No team will even be able to have direct negotiations with Ohtani until he is formally posted, which is expected to happen December 1st. Hence, teams have no way of knowing yet whether they are truly in or out of the running.

Last night on MLB Network Ken Rosenthal rejected the idea that Ohtani was slowing down the free agent market because he’s so inexpensive. Teams could sign free agents and still have plenty of money left to sign Ohtani, who will only require a one-time $20 million posting fee, a modest signing bonus, and the major league minimum salary. However, I think that argument has it backwards — the fact Ohtani is inexpensive is exactly why he’s slowing down the market. If Ohtani was not limited by international signing rules and was commanding a $200-whatever million contract on the open market, over half the teams in baseball would have already moved on to other plans.

The word “plans” here is key. This is a billion dollar business — teams don’t sign free agents randomly. Whether a team signs Ohtani or not is going to affect the rest of their offseason. For example, if a team lands Ohtani, there’s a good chance they’ll decide they don’t need to go so hard after other free agent starting pitching and will spend their money to beef up other areas instead. Similarly, if an AL team lands Ohtani, they probably aren’t going to go out and sign a full-time DH, because Ohtani wants to hit. If that same team did not land Ohtani, maybe they would go out and sign a full-time DH, if they needed one. Teams aren’t just built randomly, but according to needs.

In the Twins’ case, maybe they would still go hard after other free agent starting pitchers even if they landed Ohtani, because the Twins really need pitching. But I bet you if the Twins don’t get Ohtani, they are going to go after free agent pitching even harder than if they did.

The fact Ohtani is extremely cheap makes it more likely he’s slowing down the market, not less. He’s a unique free agent, unlike any we’ve seen before. He’s already proven his talent to a good degree, and is high in demand, yet he cannot be won by money. Every team has some shot at landing him, so every team has to plan around whether they do or do not get him. Ohtani is directly affecting every team’s plans, and therefore every potential suitor for every free agent, at least to some degree. He’s directly and indirectly affecting the entire market.

Ohtani isn’t the only reason for the market slow down; the fact it’s a rather shallow free agent class certainly doesn’t help. But I bet once Ohtani is officially posted and direct negotiations begin — and especially after he actually signs with an MLB team — we’ll see the dominoes fall pretty quickly as the other 29 teams scramble to put together offseason plan B. Stanton, on the other hand, has never even been a plan A, B, or C for the majority of MLB teams. He’s affecting the free agent market, sure, but he’s not putting it almost entirely on hold.