It is already more than a week into the Major League Baseball season and there are still several high-profile free agents unsigned. Two pitchers, Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel, are the most notable free agents remaining on the market. This is reflective of an unusual offseason in which superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper did not sign until late February and early March, respectively. Both these extended negotiations for Machado and Harper, as well the unsigned pitchers, especially Kimbrel, are reflective of a broader pattern. Many teams are turning more and more towards younger talent that can provide an equal, or close to an equal, level of productivity at a much lower salary than veteran free agents.
Seeing the success that some teams have had with young star relievers such as Edwin Díaz and Josh Hader has led other organizations to increasingly seek their own lights-out young relievers. This year, Díaz is on track to earn $607,425 and Hader $687,600. This is after both relievers put up All-Star numbers last season and earned recognition as two of the most dominant relievers in the league. Taking Kimbrel as an example of the unsigned veteran relievers, in 2018 he was paid $13,000,000. As a free agent, Kimbrel was expected to bring in a multiyear contract with an equivalent or higher per season figure. Regardless of how effective Kimbrel has been (7x All-Star), it is likely that teams see the commitment and yearly cost of signing a veteran free agent as not worth the cost despite the benefit it would bring the team. Especially for relievers, who are only briefly in the game, it is clear teams would rather seek younger talent with the hope they develop over time or provide a breakout year as seen by Díaz in 2018.
However, when it comes to leaving proven free agent talents on the market beyond the start of the season, teams should be more willing to enter negotiations with players and their agents. In only the first week of regular season games, it is clear that there are teams with a need for further bullpen depth, such the Nationals who have already lost games in late innings because their bullpen failed to hold a lead. Additionally, for teams that are aiming for a World Series championship, the addition of proven veteran players is clearly valuable and worth the contract cost and commitment that might be needed. This year, teams such as Houston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia have a shot at going deep in the postseason. After teams such as the Royals (2015) have proven how invaluable a strong bullpen is, especially as the postseason grinds on, potential playoff competitors should have higher incentives to seek All-Star caliber veteran players.
All statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference