Baseball's new normal: An offseason in which the strategy is wait, wait, wait

The state of the 2018-19 free-agent market can be summed up in one comma-filled sentence: The Washington Nationals spent more on one player this winter than the Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, Pittsburgh Pirates, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants and Toronto Blue Jays combined have guaranteed free agents.

Three weeks before every pitcher and catcher reports to major league camp, the free-agent freeze of the past two offseasons is seemingly the new normal. And while the volume of transactions clearly outpaces that of recent years, the overall dollars spent continues to lag amid the game of chicken teams are playing with Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, the two best free agents in well over a decade.

The Nationals are far and away the highest-spending team thus far, according to ESPN Stats & Information research, handing out $182 million of the $1,121,480,000 clubs have given 83 players. More than three-quarters of the Nationals' outlay went to Patrick Corbin, whose $140 million deal beats the total spending of nearly half the teams in baseball. Though top-heavy free-agent rainmaking isn't an entirely new phenomenon -- last year, the $114.5 million Colorado spent through Jan. 23 was more than the bottom 18 teams altogether -- it reinforces the grievances of players whose increasing frustration is an early drumbeat of the unrest certain to agitate labor negotiations leading up to the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2021.

Teams chortle at the notion that this is some grand conspiracy to tamp down spending on players, arguing that free agency historically has offered poor returns on investment and the evolution of the market is simply that they're getting smarter. It's odd nevertheless to be on the cusp of spring training with four clubs yet to sign a single major league free agent: the rebuilding Orioles and Marlins, the trade-happy Reds and the confounding Indians, who have won three consecutive American League Central championships, expect to win another yet have obvious holes in both corner-outfield spots and a spotty bullpen.

Cleveland, like the rest of the light spenders, could well be adopting a tack that has become teams' modus operandi in recent offseasons: Wait, then wait a little longer, then, when you think you've waited long enough, keep waiting. Because eventually the squeeze of time is more a vise on individual players seeking jobs than it is teams with a surfeit of options, and the price of deals can plummet.

That leverage already has aroused a radical change in the market, in which multiyear deals have become almost anomalous. Of the 83 players signed this winter, only 30 have received multiple guaranteed years, and of those 30, 20 of the deals span just two seasons. In addition to the four teams that have not signed a major league free agent, nine more have given out only one-year deals: the Blue Jays, Brewers, Giants, Pirates, Royals, Tigers, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Angels and Minnesota Twins.

Unlike last winter to this point, when the Giants, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees -- four of the five highest-revenue teams in the game -- ranked among the bottom dozen free-agent spenders, this winter has been mostly the domain of the metropolis. Behind the Nationals' $182 million are the Yankees ($113.1 million), Dodgers ($107.4 million), Red Sox ($74.5 million), Philadelphia Phillies ($71 million) and New York Mets ($69 million). After that are the rebuilding Seattle Mariners, whose $43 million guarantee to Japanese starter Yusei Kikuchi is the fifth highest this winter behind Corbin, the Red Sox (Nathan Eovaldi, $68 million), the Dodgers (with the recent signing of A.J. Pollock for $60 million) and the Phillies (Andrew McCutchen, $50 million).

Still unsigned are Machado and Harper, starter Dallas Keuchel and closer Craig Kimbrel. While upward of 50 free agents could wind up with major league deals between now and the beginning of the season, the vast majority are expected to cover only one year, continuing a difficult-to-break, market-clogging cycle.

Accordingly, teams that want to bargain-shop can. And what's clear is that a number of teams are baking into their winter plans the idea that they can get productive players for cut-rate prices as the season approaches. It's not just the four teams that haven't spent a dollar on major league free agents. The Cubs -- who lag behind only the Yankees and Dodgers in terms of annual revenue and in 2017 profited more than $100 million, according to Forbes -- have spent less than $10 million this winter, on utilityman Daniel Descalso, reliever Brad Brach and injured starter Kendall Graveman.

They are one of 15 teams that have spent less than $25 million on free agents this winter. That's half of baseball. It includes the Brewers, who reached the National League Championship Series last year, the Rockies, who are chasing the Dodgers in the NL West, and the Twins and White Sox, the two biggest threats to the Indians.

All of this fits into a larger universe in which the financial landscape is shifting. Even if Machado and Harper do wind up with the $300 million-plus deals once believed the starting point, it doesn't change the collapse of the market for 30-something players, the cold, calculated approach teams have embraced and the players' inability to effectively counter the degradation of their most prized possession, free agency.

Nothing is changing. Not now. Not anytime soon. The new normal is here to stay.