There’s a saying that a watched pot never boils. At some point, though, after tears stream down our face and our eyeballs turn to dust from staring at the pot for days and days on end, it’s time to wonder if someone even bothered to turn the damn stove on.
Bryce Harper is a former NL MVP, and he’s only 26 years old. Manny Machado has had four seasons with 5 or more fWAR; he’s also only 26 years old. Craig Kimbrel is the best active closer in all of baseball, with more saves and a lower career ERA than any reliever in the game. Dallas Keuchel is a former Cy Young winner with nearly 200 career wins and a career ERA of 3.66. Marwin Gonzalez is a super-utilityman with a solid bat (a .264/.318/.419 career slash line) who has yet to see his 30th birthday.
And all of them are frantically refreshing LinkedIn and Indeed.com to see if anyone will offer them a job. We’re a week away from pitchers and catchers, and there are nearly 100 free agents still waiting at the unemployment line.
Without trades and free agent signings to dissect and analyze, we’ve had to devote the offseason to explaining why baseball’s Hot Stove has gone so cold. As I wrote last month, the tepid market can largely be explained by tanking. Over half of the teams in the league are either not interested in winning, or don’t feel like the addition of a single key free agent will be a difference-maker in success or failure in the upcoming season. They’re trying to acquire draft picks and prospects for the future, not journeymen middle-of-the-rotation guys for the present.
Some of the apathy in the offseason also relates to a valuation gap between players and the front office. Back in November we (naively, as it turned out) thought that teams would get into a bidding war over Harper and Machado, leading one of them to be baseball’s first $400-million man. Yet when insiders finally revealed details about a White Sox offer to Machado, the numbers were underwhelming: just $175 million over seven years. Even front offices that want to win–the Phillies and Yankees, for example–don’t believe Machado, Harper, and other marquee free agents are worth massive financial commitments over multiple years. They prefer the long-term, inexpensive flexibility offered by hoarding home-grown young talent, and using cheap and short-term free agent options to fill in the gaps around them. Even though every sabermetric stat ever conceived suggests that Machado and Harper are worth the investment, front office execs are loath to be the guy who inks the next Chris Davis contract.
But the more important question than “why is this happening” is “why does it matter.” The anemic Hot Stove season is another warning sign of baseball’s struggles to adapt to the modern landscape of the sports and entertainment world. Even though MLB revenues are at record-highs, MLB attendance is at its lowest point since the early 2000s. Local TV ratings remain high, but baseball’s primetime events are struggling. ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, the main nationally-televised game throughout the regular season, failed to average 1.5 million viewers over its first ten broadcasts last season. The 2018 World Series featured a match-up between two big-market teams in Los Angeles and Boston, but saw an average of just 14.3 million viewers. In comparison, the snoozer that was the 2018 NBA Finals saw an average of 17.7 million, and the 2018 Super Bowl netted a whopping 111 million viewers in America alone. Maybe some of the fall in TV ratings is offset by MLB’s savvy use of online media streaming platforms, but in the national sports consciousness baseball is arguably third most popular behind football and basketball.
The lethargy in baseball’s marketplace is in stark contrast to the chaos that is basketball’s culture of acquisition. We’ve had The Decision (and then a second one, and then a third), a stillborn trade where the Magic, Suns, and Grizzlies couldn’t agree on which player named “Brooks” to include in the deal, and the DeAndre Jordan saga when the Clippers literally barricaded themselves Jordan’s house in order to sign him, sparking an emoji war in the process. Just last week the NBA hijacked the NFL’s limelight when Anthony Davis submitted a trade request to the New Orleans Pelicans in an attempt to manufacture a trade that would send him to the Lakers and Lebron James. Just days before the Super Bowl, sports radio hosts weren’t quizzing each other over blitz packages and Sean McVay’s age, but trade pieces the Lakers could include in a potential Davis deal.
With no real activity on baseball’s Hot Stove, MLB is missing out on all of the attention and drama that transactional culture can bring. NBA Twitter is awash with bloggers piecing together potential Davis-to-the-Lakers and Irving-to-the-Knicks blockbuster deals; MLB Twitter, meanwhile, is stuck posting a never-ending stream of complaints about how much it misses baseball.
With the popularity of social media and the gotta-have-it-now mindset of the average American sports fan, transactions are a key way to keep the sport in the national conversation during the offseason. While football, basketball, and even hockey take center stage in the winter, baseball goes into a deep hibernation. Trades and free agent signings give legions of sports fans something to talk about around the water cooler. There’s only so many times we can start a conversation with “did you hear who Jerry Dipoto just traded?”
Baseball’s slow offseason isn’t just a cause for consternation among baseball fans and a foreboding warning of potential ownership/labor disputes ahead; it’s a disturbing trend that will exasperate the growing decline in baseball’s popularity in the American sports landscape. Any observant front office exec can see the problems here. Thankfully, there’s a very simply solution:
PS: Jerry Blevins, Francisco Rodriguez, and Jenrry Mejia don’t count.