The billion-dollar day: Inside the wildest 24 hours in MLB free- agency history

Sports

FOR FOUR DAYS in early November, baseball executives paraded in and out of Suite 6048 at the Omni La Costa Resort and Spa. They had gathered in Carlsbad, California, for the annual GM meetings, and nearly every organization sent at least one representative to the villa to meet with agent Scott Boras and his team of lieutenants. Executives entered Boras’ room hoping to gauge the temperature of a most unusual free agent period. They left wondering how much of what he said was true. Because if it was, baseball was about to have a November unlike any they’d ever seen.

The market, the executives were told, could move fast — especially for Boras clients Corey Seager, Marcus Semien and Max Scherzer. Baseball was barreling toward a lockout that could shutter the sport for months, and the prevailing wisdom was that the majority of the top-end free agents would wait until after a new deal was in place to sign. Boras was turning that wisdom on its head, and that notion divided those who left 6048. Some rolled their eyes and figured Boras was posturing. Others rolled up their sleeves — and believed they had three weeks to remake the entire landscape of baseball.

If Boras was telling the truth — if Seager, Semien and Scherzer really were going to move before the collective-bargaining agreement expired at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1 — they wouldn’t be the only ones. The entire industry would undulate in response. Other players who hadn’t intended to sign pre-lockout would. The ripple effect could be exponential.

For all the skepticism, Boras had done this before. Two years ago, he told teams that his three prized clients — Stephen Strasburg, Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon — planned on signing during the 2019 winter meetings. Over a 72-hour period, they received a combined $814 million guaranteed. It invigorated, at least for a short while, a baseball offseason that in recent years had devolved into a painful, slogging bore. It was also, it turns out, merely a prelude for what 2021 would deliver.

About three weeks after those meetings in Carlsbad, around 4 p.m. ET on Nov. 28, the lucrative, unpredictable day that would change the game began. Five players — including all three of Boras’ top clients — would sign deals that guaranteed them more than $100 million, and another would breach the nine-figure threshold in the middle of the next night. In just 24 hours, teams lavished nearly a billion dollars on seven players.

In hindsight, the frenzy makes some kind of sense, according to more than 20 industry sources who spoke with ESPN to offer the clearest picture of how the game’s billion-dollar day came together. It was the perfect confluence, they said, of superior talent, urgency created by an artificial deadline, uncharacteristic aggressiveness from non-playoff teams and the paradoxical reality that a labor fight about money spurred a never-before-seen distribution of wealth.

This is the story of the wildest 24 hours in the history of baseball free agency.


OF ALL THE available top-tier free agents, Marcus Semien offered the broadest appeal. Seager and Carlos Correa, the other vaunted shortstop, would cost significantly more. Trevor Story and Javier Baez, the two other elite shortstops in the class, couldn’t match Semien’s 45-home run season. His greatest wart was his age, 31, but, because he wasn’t expected to top out the shortstop market anyway, that wasn’t scaring off anyone. From the beginning, interest in Semien radiated.

On the first night of the GM meetings, the Detroit Tigers told Boras that they were in. The next day, the Texas Rangers came to 6048 to say the same. The Toronto Blue Jays wanted to re-sign him. The San Francisco Giants loved him. So did the Seattle Mariners. The interested parties figured the bidding for Semien would wind up somewhere in the neighborhood of what the Blue Jays had given George Springer — another 31-year-old, up-the-middle, big-power, good-makeup player — a year earlier: six years, $150 million. If a team added a year or bumped the average annual value, perhaps that would compel Semien to jump the lockout.

A few days later, a week before Thanksgiving, Semien and Seager descended on the Resort at Pelican Hill, the posh spa up the road from Boras’ office in Newport Beach, California, to meet with suitors like Toronto, Texas and others in a more intimate setting. This was as much a get-to-know-you session for the players as the teams. It was easy for the Blue Jays, an ascendant organization that just missed the postseason in 2021, to court top-end free agents. It was something entirely different for Texas, coming off a 102-loss season.

The Rangers were ready to spend their way out of misery, and they were engaging Semien, Seager, Story and Correa. In fact, the Rangers were in on shortstops and pitchers and other bats — anyone willing to dream with them on a future that was bound to beat the present.

Semien represented the ideal first move. A natural shortstop, he had shifted to second base after signing a one-year, $18 million make-good deal with Toronto following a mediocre 2020 — and he had indicated that he was willing to stay there, which meant the Rangers might be able to add a shortstop too.

After a few days off for Thanksgiving, Semien’s market started to percolate, spurred by the Rangers, Blue Jays and Tigers. Determined to seal the deal, on the morning of Nov. 28, Texas played its trump card: a seventh year. The Rangers offered $175 million. At about 5 p.m., Semien accepted. It was the biggest deal handed out by the Rangers since Alex Rodriguez’s historic 10-year, $252 million contract more than two decades earlier.

The public response was one of surprise — that Semien would be the first of the five shortstops to sign, and for so much money. But the Rangers knew they were just beginning. Now, they set their sights on Seager, who would form a fearsome double play duo with Semien — and who was starting to believe, thanks to this signing, that Texas was for real.

It was far from a sure bet — the Los Angeles Dodgers, with whom Seager had spent his entire career and won a World Series, weren’t going anywhere. And Toronto, which had also been in on Semien, was now primed to take a strong run at Seager. But first the Blue Jays had some other business to take care of. They were in a bidding war with the New York Mets.


DURING THANKSGIVING WEEK, it became a running joke among agents that if they hadn’t gotten a call from Billy Eppler, they probably needed better clients. A week earlier, the New York Mets had hired Eppler as their new GM, and he went into overdrive, blowing up phones to orient himself with where the market stood. He moved quickly too, dropping $124.5 million on Black Friday to reshape the Mets’ lineup with center fielder Starling Marte, outfielder Mark Canha and infielder Eduardo Escobar. It was the sort of flex the industry had come to expect from the Mets since Steve Cohen bought the team in November 2020 and became the richest owner in the sport. Competing with the Mets for free agents might as well come with an all-caps warning sign: ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

The Blue Jays understood. A year earlier, they’d been down a tortuous path with Kevin Gausman. For a half decade since being selected with the fourth overall pick in the draft, Gausman was the epitome of an average pitcher. Then he went to San Francisco, where he pitched well enough during 2020 to warrant a one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer for 2021 — and accepted it, rather than sign a three-year offer in the $40 million range from Toronto. Gausman bet on himself and posted a 2.81 ERA in response. The fruits of that gamble were bountiful.

The pitching market had thinned even more quickly than teams anticipated. Detroit jumped early and gave $77 million to Eduardo Rodriguez on Nov. 15. Over the following two days, Noah Syndergaard signed with the Los Angeles Angels and Justin Verlander agreed to return to the Houston Astros. Within a week, San Francisco had picked off much of the mid-tier market, handing Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Alex Cobb multiyear deals.

Gausman hadn’t committed to signing before the lockout, but the market was pushing his agent, Brodie Scoffield, to consider it. Over the previous few weeks, the Angels, Boston Red Sox, Tigers and Giants had all expressed interest, but Toronto and New York were willing to go far past the comfort zone of those teams for the 30-year-old right-hander. The Blue Jays offered a nine-figure deal — at least $60 million more than he would’ve gotten had he signed a year earlier. The Mets were willing to go even further.

Gausman was impressed with Toronto — not just the young, dynamic lineup and the daunting rotation, but also the plan outlined by GM Ross Atkins during a Zoom call. He was flattered by the sense that he was the Blue Jays’ top priority — which was saying something. Robbie Ray, who won the 2021 American League Cy Young Award with the Blue Jays, was also a free agent.

Toronto’s final proposal was for $110 million over five years — slightly less than the Mets were offering over the same term. Gausman had a decision to make — and Cohen’s money couldn’t paper over the feeling that Toronto was the right place for him. About four hours after they lost out on Semien (and two weeks after they extended right-hander Jose Berrios for $130 million), the Blue Jays secured the best rotation in the AL East.


WHEN NEWS BROKE late the night of Nov. 28 that Gausman had turned down more money from the Mets, the internet reveled in the fact, particularly after Steven Matz had spurned the team — to the very public chagrin of Cohen — a few days earlier. But in Queens, the Mets were undeterred. Gausman wasn’t imperative to their offseason. The hope had been to sign one of them and their top priority, and they had been willing to shell out nearly a quarter-billion dollars to do it. With Gausman and Matz gone, they moved on and prepared their best and final offer for the guy they wanted most.

Max Scherzer did not have any time to waste, not with the MLB Players Association, for whom he serves on the executive subcommittee alongside Semien, preparing for last-hurrah bargaining sessions with the league. He’d done the recruiting rigmarole with his last contract, a seven-year, $210 million deal with the Washington Nationals. This time around, at age 37, his Hall of Fame plaque etched, his legacy written, it was far simpler. He would take a short-term deal. He would warrant record dollars. Nobody needed an in-person meeting to understand that.

He held Zoom calls Nov. 27, and by that night, the Mets had made an offer. The next day, hours before Semien’s signing, the Dodgers jumped into the fray, hoping to make good on their championship hopes of last year’s blockbuster acquisition of Scherzer. The Angels, in need of an ace, were lurking. There were murmurs that Scherzer preferred to stay on the West Coast, so after Gausman went to Toronto, the Mets stretched beyond where they’d originally planned to go — just to make sure that Scherzer’s choice wasn’t much of a choice at all.

The Mets were guaranteeing $130 million over three years. The $43.3 million-a-year average shattered the previous high, Cole’s $36 million, by more than 20%. The Mets didn’t want to leave any room for a team to steal him with a fourth year, even though neither the Angels nor the Dodgers had even considered going there.

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Jeff Passan reports on Max Scherzer finalizing a massive three-year deal with the Mets.

By Sunday night, a deal was essentially in place, though neither side said as much. Scherzer asked to sleep on it. The Mets obliged. Nothing changed by the next morning. Both Los Angeles teams stuck to their offers. The Mets’ proposal was overwhelmingly better. Scherzer agreed to terms. Word leaked around noon. Mets fans, perpetually scarred, almost too nervous to dream of a rotation topped by Jacob deGrom and Scherzer, exulted.

Marte, Canha, Escobar — they made the Mets better, yes. But this was different. Even if he will be 40 when the deal runs out, even if a dead arm bumped him from a playoff start in October, Scherzer represented something new for Cohen’s Mets. This was an owner bullying the market with money, which is exactly what those hungry for the team’s first championship since 1986 hoped he’d do.

The possibilities, at that point, felt endless. They could get Baez! (The Mets actually had bowed out on re-signing their big trade-deadline acquisition a couple days earlier, though had Scherzer gone sideways, they may have reconsidered.) They could go after Kris Bryant! (His market never materialized to the point where he considered signing before Dec. 1, though a post-lockout match isn’t out of the question.) They need more! (With the reigning World Series champions in their division — and adding their best player, Ronald Acuña Jr., who missed the playoff run with a torn ACL — this much is true.)

While the Mets’ universe seemed to expand, the options for other teams were contracting — and the other would-be contenders around MLB were starting to feel antsy. Plans were blowing up in real time, and as this hard-to-believe market unfolded, teams and players embraced the same philosophy: pivot or lose out.


THE SEATTLE MARINERS know they’re on the verge of something. It’s more than their ascent in 2021, when despite a minus-51 run differential, they almost snuck into an AL wild-card spot. It’s that in addition to the core that carried them to 90 victories, they’ve got some of the best near-major-league-ready talent in the minor leagues. If Julio Rodriguez and George Kirby and Matt Brash and Emerson Hancock and Noelvi Marte can perform at all like they did last season, the Mariners will be very good very soon.

Between that and a payroll that had barely $10 million in commitments for next season, the Mariners entered this winter with a plan: They wanted to sign a big bat before the deadline, and grab pitching later. Two days before Semien signed, the Mariners saw that the market might foil them. Just in case, they set up a call with Robbie Ray.

Before 2021, Ray was a bundle of unrealized talent. Today, he’s the reigning AL Cy Young winner. Like Gausman, he was coming off a one-year deal. Unlike Gausman, it’s not because he bet on himself. Last year, no team was willing to offer Ray, who had a miserable pandemic season, more than a year.

Even after 2021, enough teams weren’t sold on the 30-year-old left-hander that he was seen as likely to wait until after the lockout to sign, hoping to leverage a pitching market that might have more teams — or more desperation. But the Mariners saw what was happening. They weren’t getting the frontline bats they wanted. By then, Chris Taylor, the super utility man whom the Mariners had traded only to see him thrive with the Dodgers, looked like he was going to re-sign in Los Angeles. Adjusting was rational, especially as the pitching supply dwindled. Gausman and Scherzer were gone. In between them, right-hander Jon Gray had agreed to a $56 million deal with Texas. The last thing Seattle needed was to find itself in a post-lockout bidding war against the financial leviathans — the Dodgers, New York Yankees and Red Sox had mostly stayed quiet, awaiting the luxury-tax threshold in a new collective-bargaining agreement — that seemed to be sitting out the early rush.

Seattle jumping into the foray intrigued Ray. He liked the team’s talent. He liked the outdoor lifestyle in Seattle. He enjoyed a four-hour Zoom call with GM Jerry Dipoto, assistant GM Justin Hollander and manager Scott Servais. And after Gausman set the market at $110 million, Ray’s agents with VC Sports, Steve Veltman and Ed Cerulo, had a number to negotiate against.

The team added a year to its previous offer, bumped the money to $115 million over five years and included an opt-out following the third season. Ray agreed to terms around 2:50 p.m. It had been 22 hours since the start of a wild day of signings.

The biggest and best was still to come.


WITH SEMIEN DONE and Scherzer on the verge, Scott Boras spent the early hours of Nov. 29 trying to push the ninth $300-million-plus contract in baseball history across the finish line. He had sequestered himself in his home office for days, plowing through bags of Halls menthol lozenges and subsisting on soup sent via dumbwaiter. Corey Seager, the 27-year-old shortstop with the gorgeous left-handed swing, was going to sign Monday, and it was Boras’ job to line up the best deal.

The Rangers were willing to go 10 years and $325 million, a number that reflected the organization’s need to pay top dollar to convince players like Semien and Seager to join despite the fact that the expectations of winning in 2022 were slim. That figure was unlikely to be beat. As reverent as they are of Seager’s bat, the Dodgers have sent him to the IL too many times to commit to that high of a yearly salary for a decade. The Blue Jays were the mystery entrant in the Seager sweepstakes, but they too were unwilling to match Texas’ mega-offer.

The fit made enough sense. Chris Woodward, the Rangers’ manager, knew Seager well, having been a coach with the Dodgers. The Rangers’ attendance at Globe Life Field last season exceeded 2.1 million, the highest in the AL, and recent payroll cuts left them ready to spend. And it wasn’t like Texas had been woebegone forever: The Rangers reached back-to-back World Series in 2010 and 2011 and won consecutive AL West titles in 2015 and 2016.

Around 4 p.m., nearly the same time as Semien had agreed the day before, it was official: Corey Seager was joining him and becoming a Texas Ranger. For Texas, it was a coup. It had guaranteed a half-billion dollars, sure, but in the process gifted itself the best middle infield in baseball. The conversations in Suite 6048 had ushered in the beginning of a new era in Rangers’ baseball, one that can best be summed up like this: Texas guaranteed Corey Seager $325 million — more than the 10 playoff teams from 2021 spent on free agents before the lockout ($318.15 million).

Including Seager, the 24 hours ended with seven players — Semien, Avisail Garcia, Gausman, Gray, Scherzer and Ray joined him — landing a combined $964 million. It wasn’t over, either. Free agency kept going all the way to the cusp of the lockout, adding to the staggering total spent — and landing one more nine-figure deal that exceeded expectations.


IN THE WEE hours of the morning, on calls across four time zones, Javier Baez found a new team. Baez wasn’t supposed to sign. His cutoff had been Friday, Saturday at the latest. But then the Detroit Tigers, who had been on Semien and Story and were monitoring Correa, came calling, and now they were getting their shortstop of the future. Baez was in Puerto Rico, Tigers GM Al Avila in Detroit, Tigers manager AJ Hinch in Houston and Nick Chanock, Baez’s agent, in Los Angeles, where it was technically still Monday, not even half a day separated from the wild 24.

The November 2021 market was a historically good one. It wasn’t simply the billion-dollar day. Baez wound up with $140 million over six years with an opt-out after two from Detroit. Raisel Iglesias got four years at $58 million with the Angels and Marcus Stroman scored $71 million for three seasons with the Cubs. The seven highest-spending teams were the Rangers, Mets, Tigers, Blue Jays, Mariners, Angels and Cubs. Non-playoff teams outspent playoff teams almost 5-to-1. The total outlay, to 53 free agents, totaled $1,885,075,000 — and that doesn’t include another $77 million in agreed-upon deals for Justin Verlander, Nick Martinez and Jordan Lyles that, for one reason or another, didn’t cross the finish line before the lockout went into effect.

The mania and excitement of the 24 hours only magnifies the void since the game shut down. Baseball was relevant in November, a month it almost always cedes to the NFL. It had momentum that was churning day and night, through lozenges and reams of caffeine and even dinners like the $630 million table at Nick and Sam’s in Dallas, where Seager, Semien and Scherzer — who was in town for CBA negotiations — went to celebrate their fortunes and mourn their sport’s, just hours before the lockout began.

At some point, baseball will be back, and when it is, executives and agents hope, the rush to sign players will be even more frantic than in this first go-round. There’s Correa and Freeman and Bryant and Story and Clayton Kershaw and Nick Castellanos and Seiya Suzuki and Carlos Rodon and 200 other players looking for jobs. Nobody knows what the market will be, how it will function — whether this labor discord now in its second week will present a dip, a bump, a sinkhole, a roadblock or a grenade in the path to baseball in 2022.

These are sad days for the game, which is why it’s important to remember the ones like Nov. 28-29, when the action crackled, the money flowed, baseball felt positively alive. Then, 24 hours were more than enough.

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