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After a slow end to free agency, is holding out for top deal harmful or helpful?


The 2023 off-season got off to a strong start thanks to the uber-talented Shohei Ohtani's signing of a historic contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Dec. 9.

The two-way star's 10-year, $700 million contract was always expected to be the first domino to fall, but for teams who missed out on the two-time MVP, there were a number of choices available that could significantly boost their chances to compete moving forward.

As has happened all too often in recent years, several of the top free agents elected to hold out for bigger deals - many of them on the advice of one of MLB's biggest agents, Scott Boras.

Outfielder Cody Bellinger, lefty pitcher Blake Snell and third baseman Matt Chapman all ranked among the top 10 of TSN's Top 50 MLB free Agents list, are all represented by Boras, and all signed their contracts in the month of March after Spring Training was well under way.

Jordan Montgomery, another Boras client, finally signed Wednesday on a one-year, $25 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks, likely pushing back his season debut. 

The crucial balance these players - and Boras, among other agents - must solve is whether it is more productive to hold out for the most money possible, or sign a deal early to best utilize Spring Training for preparation and to get acquainted with team staff.

Over the last five seasons - excluding 2020, when the season was delayed until August due to the COVID-19 pandemic - 30 players have signed with a new team after Spring Training opened within three years of posting at least three Baseball Reference wins above replacement (bWAR) in a season.

WAR is a stat which attempts to encapsulate a player's value to a team over a hypothetical "replacement-level" player, and represent it in a number. The stat is calculated differently on two major baseball statistic databases, and therefore has two separate labels, either bWAR or fWAR (fWAR is used by Fangraphs).

A bWAR of two-or-higher roughly indicates a player worthy of a spot in the starting lineup. Five-or-more denotes an All-Star calibre player, and a bWAR of eight-or-more suggests a player is an MVP-level contributor, per

"It's one of the most important aspects of this game and you want to be able to start strong with the season, with confidence," said Minnesota Twins shortstop Carlos Correa about the benefits of Spring Training. "So we're working on our swing, our timing, try to get right."

Correa had a tumultuous free agency run, that ended with the longtime Houston Astros star signing with the Twins on March 22, 2022, just two weeks ahead of Opening Day.

“It’s just nice to play a game," Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, who did not sign until March 18, 2022, said. "The first few games you’re just trying to see strikes and swing at the right pitches."

Like many others looking at Spring Training, Freeman is concerned with getting up to playing speed, especially tracking pitches after many months out of game action. "I feel good at the beginning and then it always feels like there’s a week where you can’t get a hit. You’ve got to get rid of that and then hopefully feel good by the end of Spring Training.”

Most free agents, barring recovery from injury or surgery, will partake in ongoing workouts until they're finally signed. But the most important factor at the end of the day for the teams and front offices looking to sign these players is: does the extended holdout for a bigger deal have any negative impact on their performance on the field once the real games begin?

The results are a mixed bag, but for some of the upper-tier stars, the guys who produce seasons of five-or-more WAR, a surprising amount have struggled out of the gate after a delayed contract period.

Manny Machado and Bryce Harper shaped the 2019 free agency period with their megadeals - Machado's a 10-year, $300 million agreement with the Padres and Harper's a 13-year, $330 million deal with the Philadelphia Phillies, both signed in March that year.

Each player posted numbers that season below their career averages, neither were All-Stars and both struggled extensively in the opening months of the season compared to their career norms.

Players with early-season struggles after delayed contract signings

Player Year March/April slash line Season slash line Career slash line
Luke Voit  2023  .221/.284/.265 (didn't play beyond April due to injury)  .221/.284/.265  .253/.339/.468 
Trevor Story  2022  .224/.297/.299  .238/.303/.434  .265/.332/.504 
Carlos Correa  2022  .243/.309/.324  .291/.366/.467  .272/.351/.468 
Kyle Schwarber  2022  .169/.298/.423  .218/.323/.504  .227/.340/.492 
Bryce Harper  2019  .247/.364/.480  .260/.372/.510  .281/.391/.521 
Manny Machado  2019  .236/.325/.368  .256/.334/.462  .279/.339/.490 

Both Machado and Harper, and many players that elect to test the free agent market as long as they can, are clients of Boras. Boras tends to represent the top players in the game - "Scott Boras is rich because he makes ... the richest players in the game richer," said former MLBPA member Harry Marino recently to The Athletic.

Of the 23 players to fit the mold laid out earlier, over two-thirds performed poorly out of the gate in April in the first season of their new contract, and over half performed below or well-below their career averages for the entire season.

For teams relying on late additions to their roster to provide a significant boost - the San Francisco Giants for example have a pair in Snell and Chapman, after signing both in the month of March - expectations may need to be tempered for this season.