Analysis | After strange free agent winter, Blake Snell finds a home with Giants

Analysis | After strange free agent winter, Blake Snell finds a home with Giants

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

Four months had passed since Blake Snell secured a second Cy Young Award, adding to the kind of résumé that would normally inspire teams to swarm to a 31-year-old free agent lefty. About 36 hours remained before the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres would begin the MLB regular season in Seoul. But finally, after one of the strangest free agent winters in recent memory, Snell found a home.

Snell agreed to a two-year deal with the San Francisco Giants late Monday evening, a deal that will pay him $62 million over two seasons and allow him to opt out after the first, according to a person familiar with the terms. It is not the nine-figure deal his agent, Scott Boras, made clear he was hunting earlier this offseason. It does not provide the kind of long-term baseball security aces who hit free agency around 30 tend to covet and, until recently, almost always received.

But the deal is emblematic of an offseason during which teams have treated front-line starting pitchers with an unpredictable mix of caution and desperation — and have been remarkably unwilling to bite on Boras clients they view as flawed.

To the first point, consider: The Los Angeles Dodgers gave the biggest contract in starting pitcher history to a man, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, who has never thrown a pitch in Major League Baseball. No team would come close to that number on Snell, who has a long track record of success. Fellow top free agent starter and Boras client Jordan Montgomery, who proved himself capable of postseason heroics last year, remains unsigned.

In the meantime, pitcher injuries are piling up at record rates, leaving a who’s who of this era’s greatest starters on the injured list to start the season: Jacob deGrom, Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole, Clayton Kershaw, Robbie Ray, Sandy Alcantara, Kyle Bradish, Lance McCullers Jr., Brandon Woodruff, Shane McClanahan, Sonny Gray and countless others will miss significant time because of arm injuries.

Given the demand the spate of injuries has created, one might think teams would be willing to give pitchers such as Snell whatever they want. But that has not been the case. In Snell’s case, according to multiple team executives across the league, the hesitance centers on the fact he walks so many batters — 4.95 per nine in 2023, highest of any qualified starter — that his 2.25 ERA last season feels more a product of good luck and timely escapes than a guarantee he can serve as an ace long-term.

Plus, he has developed a reputation as a starter who can’t go through the lineup a third time — one cemented against Snell’s will when Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash pulled him from a gem in Game 6 of the 2020 World Series. Fairly or not, those critiques kept teams away, particularly from committing big, long-term money to someone who some believe will not have the same elite numbers year after year as he did in his walk year.

But the caution is not exclusive to Snell. Outside of Yamamoto, only one free agent starter secured a deal longer than four guaranteed years this winter: Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola, a hometown favorite who has thrown more innings than all but two starters in baseball over the past five seasons.

The days of signing aces to long-term free agent deals and, as executives put it, “eating the money” as injuries and age-related decline limit performance, seem to be dwindling. Short-term, high-annual-value deals — uncomfortably enough, such as the one pioneered by Trevor Bauer when he signed with the Dodgers in 2021 and adopted by several aces since — seem to be sliding into the past, particularly as more midterm deals end up including a year or two lost to injury. (See the New York Yankees and Carlos Rodón, among many others.)

Even extensions seem to be more of a big-market team’s game. The Dodgers, who can absorb more financial risk than most, committed more than $100 million in an extension to oft-injured Tyler Glasnow. The Phillies, similarly financially comfortable, committed three more years and $126 million to Zack Wheeler. Teams that can afford to pay for a year or two of injury time are willing to do it. The rest are letting homegrown aces walk or trading them while they can, as the Milwaukee Brewers did with Corbin Burnes or the Chicago White Sox did with Dylan Cease, knowing they cannot commit to them long-term. To replace them, the teams are hunting bargains on the trade market or committing more to prove-it, short-term deals — or, in some cases, not bidding much at all.

Then again, one could argue some of the hesitance to sign free agent starters this winter was more about the specific starters available than any larger trend. Snell’s walk rate and enigmatic reputation certainly contributed.

And indeed, when it comes to Boras’s inability to secure long-term deals for his top four clients this winter — Snell, Montgomery, Cody Bellinger and Matt Chapman — executives point out that his free agent class simply wasn’t as strong as others he has had in the past. Chapman is an elite defender but not a top-line offensive contributor. Montgomery is viewed as a solid No. 2 or No. 3 starter who seemed to be asking for ace money because teams are so starved for pitching. Bellinger is coming off one bounce-back year but struggled for multiple seasons before that. None of those players feel like sure things, and it seems as if the market treated them with skepticism. Perhaps, when it comes to Boras’s winter, the cause is that simple.

It feels worth noting that, barring a massive surprise for Montgomery, none of the seven biggest contracts in baseball today belong to Boras clients. There was a time when he dominated the list.

Boras has, however, succeeded in getting many of his starters short-term deals with eye-popping average annual values: Scherzer set an AAV record when he signed his deal with the New York Mets for $43.333 million per year. Cole, the last ace to get one of those classic megadeals for which Boras has been known, gets $36 million. But fittingly, the next highest-paid starter on Boras’s ledger is Stephen Strasburg, who has made $35 million annually since 2020, made eight starts in that time and will not pitch again.

Starting pitchers in this era of high velocity and high injury rates are a huge financial risk. And more and more, it seems the majority of the league is treating them as such.

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