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MLB free agency is going to be a long, grueling process

Many teams will be financially conscious because revenues next season are unknown. So don’t expect free agency to move quickly.

DJ LeMahieu is among this offseason’s top free agents.
DJ LeMahieu is among this offseason’s top free agents.
Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

If you’re waiting for a big, splashy signing now that free agency has begun, prepare to be disappointed, because this offseason is going to be dry for a while.

The coronavirus pandemic dramatically affected Major League Baseball, and even though it completed a 60-game regular season and expanded postseason, its revenue has been affected the most.

Without fans in the stands and gate revenue, teams have looked to cut costs in other places, unfortunately, costing many in the game their jobs.

Teams all across MLB have had mass layoffs in baseball and business operations to try to save money. The Cubs are no exception and have made cuts in both departments.

The turn of events comes as a stark reminder of how quickly things can change. Last season, MLB topped $10.8 billion in revenue and was on top of the world with the hopes of another record-breaking year in 2020.

Just 12 months later, commissioner Rob Manfred had a different tone, saying that MLB was in a dire place, with teams approximately $8.3 billion in debt.

“We are going to be at historic high levels of debt,” Manfred told Sportico during the World Series.

“The only thing I can acknowledge is that we’re in a period of great uncertainty,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said. “That’s industrywide.”

So what does this mean for the free-agent market?

Several teams already have begun to save money this week, turning down club options on players, including some surprising names and relatively low financial commitments. Just six players received qualifying offers.

Kolten Wong had his $12.5 million option declined by the Cardinals last week. The sure-handed second baseman won the National League Gold Glove Award on Tuesday. And he isn’t the only talented player to hit the market.

Here are some of the intriguing players who had their options declined: RHP Chris Archer, RHP Corey Kluber, RHP Charlie Morton, RHP Anibal Sanchez, LHP J.A. Happ, OF Adam Eaton and INF Howie Kendrick.

How fast will the market move?

This offseason has a chance to move similarly to the 2019 offseason, with free agents remaining on the market deep into the winter and several unsigned until spring training.

Unlike that offseason, there are no franchise-changing players like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado on the market. Mookie Betts signed a massive 12-year, $365 million deal with the Dodgers before the season.

But that doesn’t mean other high-quality players aren’t available.

Because so many teams are being financially conscious with the unknown of what revenues will be next season, don’t expect any of these free agents to sign quickly, especially if teams see price tags starting to fall the longer players are on the market.

Even with the possible spending restrictions and payroll questions, the Cubs’ front office will have to make roster decisions and transactions, despite ongoing changes in MLB’s financial landscape and unknown revenue for 2021 and beyond.

“Our job isn’t just to sit there and shrug our shoulders and say, ‘Well, there’s uncertainty, we can’t do anything,’ ” Epstein said. “It’s to be really systematic about asking the right questions, getting to the right answers, using each day as an opportunity to try to properly forecast the different range of possible outcomes, and then be really strategic about our plan moving forward, acknowledging the uncertainty along the way.

“We need to be versatile. We need to be adjustable, and we need to be effective, despite the uncertainty of the landscape.”

After a team makes the first move, other teams will start to make moves, as well. But until someone lights the first match, it’s hard to imagine things thawing anytime soon.