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Baseball’s Free Agent Market Is Way Down This Year

The numbers don’t lie, but nobody knows why.

Major League Baseball players have spent the last several weeks criticizing what they say is an unusually—even suspiciously—quiet offseason for free agents. On Tuesday, Major League Baseball shot back, saying the only thing that’s abnormal is how many players have refused good deals.

“It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned,” MLB said in a statement. “What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures.”

That’s half-right. It is definitely uncommon that most of the league’s best free agents, a list that this year includes Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and Jake Arrieta, are unsigned. But by volume, the number of free agents signed so far this year is uncommon, too. It’s a much smaller figure than in years past.

Since the beginning of November, about 200 free agents have signed major- or minor-league deals. That lags far behind every other offseason of the past 15 years, according to data from Baseball-Reference.com.

For free-agents with five-plus years of experience, the trend is the same. So far, about 110 veteran players have signed new contracts, roughly half the number that has usually done so by now. In the 2010-11 offseason, for example, more than 235 had signed by this point. Last season, about 160 had.

Baseball has experienced 23 years of labor peace, dating back to the 1994-95 players strike—a streak longer than any other in U.S. sports. The current MLB accord, signed in 2016, runs through 2021. But this offseason “threatens the very integrity of our game,” said Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Some, including a prominent agent and a 2017 All-Star, have mentioned the possibility of a player-led boycott.

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report next week.

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