Compared with last MLB offseason, this year has been a blizzard of rumors and activity. Teams are addressing needs, big-name players are inking deals, and those contracts feature appropriate numbers after the dollar signs. Yes, it’s still early. But things are happening.
The Braves ponied up for reliever Will Smith, then Wednesday signed starter Cole Hamels. The Reds reportedly gave a fat contract to Mike Moustakas. The Yankees are reportedly ready to go all-in for Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. Zack Wheeler is reportedly about to be a $100 million man for someone. Yes, there’s a lot of “reportedly” out there, but it’s still refreshing.
But it’s also a little surprising, especially after the 2018 hot stove season moved at such a glacial pace, with some stars — most notably Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — remaining without a team until spring training or later (much later in some cases).
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What’s changed? Have teams suddenly decided to switch gears and resume the old ways of bidding wars and free spending? Are they trying to prove definitively that there was never any sort of collusion? Or is it something else?
I have a theory, in the form of a question: What if teams are going for it now — meaning 2020 and 2021 — because they know a long work stoppage is coming in two years to wreck plans and possibly slam contention windows shut? What if the certainty of a crushing strike or lockout is so strong that teams have said, “Screw it. We’re gonna win now because we might not get another chance for a while?”
Think about it: With all the recent labor acrimony — the collusion accusations, last year’s delayed and often below-market value contracts, commissioner Rob Manfred’s recently leaked comments that there would be no financial concessions during the next CBA negotiations, among other signs — everyone expects a bitter fight, one that could result in the loss of a significant number of games. In a worst-case scenario, a work stoppage could wipe out the entire 2022 season, and possibly more. Some might deem that unlikely or even unthinkable, but we don’t have to look too far into sports history for an example.
The NHL’s 2004-05 lockout resulted in the cancellation of the whole season. It’s the only time that’s happened in the history of North American sports. Sure, hockey isn’t baseball, but the bad feelings were fueled by similar circumstances. The lost season set a precedent for a major sports league making the ultimate sacrifice to settle a labor dispute. So, really, it’s not that unthinkable to ponder such a fate for the 2022 MLB season, which brings us back to the my original premise: that teams are convinced of dark times ahead and they want to maximize the remaining peace time.
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Some might wonder: Would one lost season really close a team’s contention window? Well, yes. A full season away from proper competition, away from proper conditioning, away from the usual routines and rhythms of an MLB season, not to mention being a year older, would naturally lead to diminished skills in many players. Perhaps not drastically, but perhaps enough to make the difference between good and elite, or the difference between solid and serviceable. The body is a strange creature, and big-league ability is finite. You just never know.
Also, depending on how the labor dispute settles, key players could wind up elsewhere, others might retire, teams could change philosophies with rosters that reflect a new direction. The point is, a lost season would breed a lot of uncertainty and perhaps cause the baseball dominoes to fall in ways that slam windows. Even losing part of a season can do that. Just ask the 1994 Expos.
So, is that why teams are more active this offseason? Maybe, maybe not. I’m willing to be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. But something has changed since last year, and it’s definitely not been a change of heart about the economic structure of the league.
Regardless, teams do know this: It’s hard to contend and it’s even harder to win titles, so losing a precious opportunity to win one would be tough to swallow.