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If it seems like a slow off-season, that’s because it is

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The hot stove is ice cold.

Royals game against Angels, Ohtani postponed because of chilly temps John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

A winter freeze has fallen over the Midwest, but in baseball, that freeze has been in place since the fall. Kansas City has been an oasis in activity, with Dayton Moore signing four free agents so far - first baseman Carlos Santana, outfielder Michael Taylor, and pitchers Mike Minor and Greg Holland. And the Padres have made waves this week, acquiring pitchers Yu Darvish and Blake Snell, and Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim

But the rest of baseball has been in hibernation. December is typically the sport’s most active month in the off-season, and yet most of the game’s top free agents are still unsigned.

*-this does not include players that accepted the Qualifying Offer

It is a weaker free agent class this year, but there are still some high quality players still available - catcher JT Realmuto, infielders Didi Gregorius, DJ LeMahieu, and Justin Turner, outfielders Michael Brantley, Marcell Ozuna, and George Springer, and pitchers Trevor Bauer, Masahiro Tanaka, and Jake Odorizzi. So far this year, teams have doled out $200 million worth of free agent contracts. For the entire off-season last year, teams signed players to $2 billion worth of free agent contracts. The Stephen Strasburg contract alone (signed on December 9, 2019), is worth more than all the contracts signed by players so far this off-season.

This goes for the trade market too. I looked at all the notable trades (meaning, a Major League semi-regular was traded) from the end of the season until the end of the calendar year. There were more trades in four days of the 2015 Winter Meetings than there have been this entire off-season so far.

Trades between the end of the season and end of the calendar year

Year Number of trades
Year Number of trades
2015 27
2016 15
2017 16
2018 19
2019 12
2020 7

The pandemic has certainly had some effect, keeping baseball from not having a physical meeting place for the Winter Meetings. However, the pandemic did not seem to impede NFL teams from signing free agents earlier this year despite restrictions on hosting players and taking physicals.

Rather, this is primarily financially motivated. Owners are claiming major losses this year, but we have seen a trend of teams dialing back on spending dating before the pandemic. I did some research a few years back showing that teams signing players after December 31 typically got a discount on contracts. Many clubs could be waiting free agents out, or many could simply be staying out of the market altogether.

Ultimately, this is all bad for the sport of baseball. Think of how fun the first week of NFL free agency is, with a mad rush of news about which players has signed where. The term “Woj Bomb” has become a part of popular lexicon due to the breaking news from NBA reporter Adrian Wojnarowski on the blockbuster deals that populate basketball.

Meanwhile, the baseball off-season, much like the game itself, crawls along at a snail’s pace.