Passan: The eight things we learned from MLB's $3.8 billion offseason

by Daryn Albert - From the teams who spent big -- and those who sat out the frenzy -- to free agency superlatives, here's what a wild winter taught us.

Jeff Passan's 2022-23 MLB free agency takeaways AP Photo/Seth Wenig 7:00 AM ET Jeff PassanESPN Close ESPN MLB insider Author of "The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports" Spring training starts in less than a month. Every major free agent is signed. Almost all of the second- and third-tier ones have jobs, too. It's almost like Major League Baseball free agency doesn't need to bleed into the beginning of a new season. With that clarity, we can find takeaways, lessons and trends -- the sort of things that inform not only the past three months but the season to come and, possibly, the years ahead. Teams have guaranteed players a record $3.8-plus billion this winter. Maybe it is an outlier -- a confluence of a free agent class with a bigger-than-usual group of star-caliber talent, a new collective bargaining agreement that juiced spending and a handful of motivated owners willing to ignore convention and logic in search of winning. Or perhaps it's just the new norm. Time will tell. Either way, there is plenty to chew on -- some of it indicative of that new era, some reinforcing long-held thoughts. All of it, though, is representative of a free agency period that won't be forgotten anytime soon. Here are eight things free agency taught us. 1) The team that spent the most this offseason is not the one you think it is -- and it guaranteed more money than the 18 bottom spenders combined. For all the headlines the New York Mets have hogged this winter, the New York Yankees actually have doled out the most guaranteed money of any team: $573.5 million. The aggregate offseason spending of the Toronto Blue Jays , Los Angeles Dodgers , Los Angeles Angels , Tampa Bay Rays , Cleveland Guardians , Oakland Athletics , Pittsburgh Pirates , Miami Marlins , Washington Nationals , Baltimore Orioles , Kansas City Royals , Arizona Diamondbacks , Detroit Tigers , Cincinnati Reds , Colorado Rockies , Seattle Mariners , Milwaukee Brewers and Atlanta Braves : $507.5 million. Editor's Picks The biggest winners and losers of this MLB offseason 6d Kiley McDaniel 2 Related And the Yankees aren't exactly alone in that stratosphere. The Mets talk was warranted -- their spending exceeded $492 million even after the Carlos Correa deal fell through. In fact, of the $3.8-plus billion guaranteed this winter, 79.4% of it -- more than $3 billion -- comes from just nine teams: the Yankees, Mets, Philadelphia Phillies , San Diego Padres , Chicago Cubs , Texas Rangers , Minnesota Twins , San Francisco Giants and Boston Red Sox . Free agent spending does tend to concentrate among a small group of teams annually, and the fact that those nine teams had Opening Day payrolls in 2022 that ranked second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, 13th , 14th , 15th and 16th reminds that about half the teams in baseball see top-of-the-market free agency as a luxury in which they refuse to partake. 2) Lower-revenue teams still aren't spending. There is massive payroll inequality in baseball -- and as much as we hear about the teams at the very top and bottom, the discrepancy is not just due to the Mets' payroll being more than 450% higher than Oakland's. It's the proliferation of low-spending teams refusing to make the commitments it takes to add the best players. The teams that continue to pinch pennies often come equipped with excuses about why they need to squeeze them so tight -- and what we saw this winter showed that this gap will only increase at a time when some teams are deciding to leave that bottom group behind while others continue to invent reasons they cannot spend enough to win. Ranking all 30 MLB teams Where all squads stand now that the biggest free agents are off the board following this year's free agency frenzy. Mets or Yankees? Padres or Dodgers? » The Padres are a perfect example of a small-market team's ability to evolve into something more. The Padres invested in their roster. They are trying to win. And they're going to sell out every home game this season after years of bottom-third attendance in all of baseball. So why can't every team do that? Is it because ... the Padres are the only pro team in their market and can own the city? Or because ... they took private-equity money from Ares Management and other owners don't want to dilute their shares? And finally because ... what they're doing isn't sustainable or particularly rational and good teams aren't run that way? All of those points might be true -- and yet the Padres have chosen to leverage their advantages instead of bemoaning their disadvantages. As a result, they'll spend the near future chasing World Series trophies while franchises that were previously San Diego's peers remain tethered to the bottom of the standings. The reality is, half of the 30 teams in MLB have spent $40 million or less in free agency this winter. It's a big group, but the familiar faces at the bottom are perhaps the most alarming. Last year, on Opening Day, eight teams started the season with payrolls below $100 million: Arizona, Baltimore, Cleveland, Kansas City, Miami, Oakland, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay. Today, there are nine teams with payrolls under $100 million: the final seven from last year, plus Cincinnati and Washington -- and all of them are among the lower half of spenders this winter. 3) The lowest-spending team in free agency will definitely surprise you. It is ... the Atlanta Braves. Hold on now. The Braves ? The team projected to have the eighth-highest payroll in the big leagues this year, at nearly $200 million? The team that won the World Series in 2021? It's true. Atlanta has signed one free agent this winter to a guaranteed major league deal: outfielder Jordan Luplow , for one year and $1.4 million. Its other signings -- relievers Nick Anderson and Jesse Chavez , utilityman Ehire Adrianza -- are either non-guaranteed big league spots or minor league deals. What gives? Well, Atlanta did bolster its roster, just not through free agency. The Braves spent $73 million on their signature move of the offseason, trading for All-Star catcher Sean Murphy and then extending him through 2029. The contract of the average non-closer in free agency this year has cost $6.8 million per year, so Atlanta addressed its relief corps by trading for Detroit setup man Joe Jimenez , who will make $2.77 million. It's a similar situation to that of the Seattle Mariners, who have lavished all of $8.2 million on free agents this winter: $7 million for A.J. Pollock, the rest for Trevor Gott . Seattle made a big splash around the trade deadline, acquiring starter Luis Castillo , who eventually signed a five-year, $108 million extension -- the second nine-figure deal within a short period for the Mariners after Julio Rodriguez's mega-extension. The Mariners do have more room to flex their financial muscles, but in a market like this, perhaps Seattle -- and other non-spenders -- are viewing it as simply the wrong time to add via free agency. It's easy to get caught up in free agency, especially when fans want a team to take another leap forward (Seattle) or keep up with the divisional Joneses (Atlanta). And all of that is reasonable. Sports fans aren't wired to consider three-year plans in the same way general managers do. So unless an offseason is completely transformative for a team -- and examples do exist -- taking one winter into a larger context will keep you sane. Just because a few months haven't been outwardly busy doesn't mean business is shutting down. To properly judge a baseball team and the efficacy of its moves takes multiple years. Why aren't the Braves getting grief for their offseason? Because in the past four years, they've locked up Murphy, Austin Riley , Ronald Acuña Jr., Matt Olson , Michael Harris II , Ozzie Albies and Spencer Strider . The message couldn't be much clearer: Atlanta would rather spend money on homegrown players than dabble in an irrational free agent market. 4) Teams are giving out years like never before. Commitments do not strictly entail dollars. Somehow, in a game that better than ever understands the vagaries of aging, a game that has tried to get younger, teams have decided that giving out five-plus-year contracts to players in their 30s is suddenly again tolerable . The about-face is the most staggering part of this winter, with 14 players receiving contracts guaranteeing at least five seasons. (Eight of those players will be 30 or older on Opening Day.) The winter of the epic contract This offseason's four biggest free agents signed massive megadeals that are not only risky, but that started a historic hot stove trend. Why paying players in their 30s rarely works out » How decade-plus deals suddenly became a thing » That is the most five-plus-year deals this century, beating the dozen from 2015 and the 10 last year. Comprehensive free agent data from before 2000 is not publicly available, though it's likely this is the most ever. But there might be an even more surprising trend, one that shows a clear line of demarcation between the top 10 spenders and the remaining 20. This winter, 55 players have received multiyear contracts. The top 10 spenders have awarded 41 of them, while the other 20 teams have handed out 14. The Mets and Giants by themselves have handed out almost as many multiyear deals as two-thirds of the league. Aggressiveness manifests itself in a number of ways during free agency, and one of those is a front office's willingness to completely reshape its team for multiple years over the course of one offseason without any sense of how those brought in will adapt to new teammates or an organization's culture or any potential stumbling block. The teams that commit to spending in free agency do so acknowledging that the successes they do have come with plenty of risk. 5) Free agency is not just about who spent the most (and least) -- so here are some superlatives for approaches that stood out. The Sneaky-Big Step Forward Award goes to: As hard as it might be to believe, the Cubs have spent more than $300 million this winter and signed more new players than any other team. (Though the Mets signed more free agents, three of them were rejoining the team -- seven of Chicago's eight signings played elsewhere last year.) Chicago spread around its wealth, too: About half that money went to shortstop Dansby Swanson and the rest to a center fielder, catcher, a couple starting pitchers and some relief help. Chicago was actively bad last year. It should be far less so this year, especially when you look at what the rest of the National League Central has -- or rather hasn't -- done. Milwaukee might have landed a coup in a trade, acquiring All-Star catcher William Contreras for prospect Esteury Ruiz , but the Brewers have been the second-lowest-spending team in free agency, a winter tradition in Milwaukee. St. Louis didn't lose much, but aside from Contreras' brother, Willson, signing a five-year deal, the Cardinals didn't gain a whole lot either. Are the Cubs going to win the division? Probably not. Is their opportunity to compete real? Much more real than a couple months back. The Patience is a Virtue Award goes to: The Los Angeles Dodgers, who are willing to enter 2023 as a lesser version of themselves because having won 111 games last year they can afford to do so while still making the postseason. There is that reality -- and as antithetical as it is to the idea that every team should be its best, in a world of 12 playoff teams, with variance being what it is, going full-bore every year is unrealistic (or at least until Mets owner Steve Cohen normalizes it). Then there is the looming free agency of Shohei Ohtani , the timing of which the Dodgers are well aware, that's going to cost perhaps $500 million alone come this November. These are the Dodgers, mind you, and they can walk and chew gum simultaneously, so Ohtani and a busy free agent period in 2022-23 weren't mutually exclusive. But it is where they are, and after years of record payrolls, teams will occasionally pull back. MLB's first $500 million man? What executives, agents and others around baseball are saying about Shohei Ohtani's future. Alden Gonzalez » The Bargain Hunters of the Year goes to: A four-way tie among Oakland, Pittsburgh, Washington and Arizona. The Diamondbacks have signed four players for $18.8 million -- or less than Joc Pederson will get for this year. The Nationals are at five for $23.3 million, the Pirates at six for $30.4 million and the A's -- the A's! -- leading the pack at $37.25 million for five players. Perhaps Arizona can contend this year, but the others are just hoping to build players up through July before spinning them at the trade deadline for a young prospect. The Rebound of the Year goes to: The San Francisco Giants, who after being spurned by Aaron Judge and living through the first wave of the Carlos Correa fiasco managed to commit a ton of money and longer contracts as their Plan C. Three years for Mitch Haniger and Taylor Rogers . Two years for Michael Conforto , Ross Stripling , Sean Manaea and Luke Jackson . And one season for Pederson. The Giants need talent -- they don't match up with the Padres and Dodgers -- and they've crushed free agency enough in the past to earn at least a small amount of benefit of the doubt. 6) More than half the money spent in free agency went to nine players. So far we've focused on the teams doing the spending, now it's time to look at some of the leaguewide trends we can glean from this offseason's splurge in total dollars spent. Nearly $1.93 billion was guaranteed to Judge, Correa, Trea Turner , Xander Bogaerts , Jacob deGrom , Dansby Swanson , Brandon Nimmo , Carlos Rodon and Edwin Diaz . Just another reminder about free agency's most reliable aphorism: The stars always get paid. In case your team didn't nab one of the nine-figure players this season, fret not. The next two winters -- especially the class of 2024-25, which, barring a proliferation of extensions, will break all sorts of free agency records -- will feature plenty of players with the potential to land in that neighborhood. 2023-24 Very likely: Ohtani, Manny Machado , Aaron Nola , Julio Urias Could join the mix: Matt Chapman , Yu Darvish , Jack Flaherty , Lucas Giolito , Ian Happ , Teoscar Hernández, Rhys Hoskins , Amed Rosario , Luis Severino , Blake Snell 2024-25 Could join the mix: Jose Altuve , Alex Bregman , Tyler Glasnow , Paul Goldschmidt , Max Kepler , Pablo Lopez , German Marquez , Jeff McNeil , Tyler O'Neill, Gleyber Torres 7) The average cost for a year of a free agent starting pitcher's contract is $16.6 million. If that sounds obscene, it is. But it's true: Starting pitchers have fetched $1.13 billion this winter in deals that total 68 years. At that cost, it's $16.6 million a year. Even when removing the outliers -- deGrom, Rodon and Justin Verlander -- it's $12.7 million, which is in line with what Zach Eflin got from the Rays (three years, $40 million), Stripling from the Giants (two years, $25 million) and Tyler Anderson from the Angels (three years, $39 million) in a tier that goes beyond the household names that will top a rotation. The big four shortstops have signed! For two offseasons now, a group of star shortstops has dominated free agency. Which teams came out on top and who lost big? Winners, loser of the shortstop carousel » With relievers at $8.6 million (and $6.8 million a year when removing the two closers, Diaz and Kenley Jansen ), putting together a pitching staff is not only more difficult than ever but pricier, too. Considering the surfeit of starting pitching set to hit the free agent market over the next two years -- in addition to those above, Max Scherzer can opt out after this season and in 2024-25, Chris Sale , Lance Lynn , Verlander and plenty more will become free agents -- following the cost will be fascinating. Starting pitching, remember, has been increasingly phased out of the game, so the desire to enrich top starters is a reminder that they do remain a vital part of baseball's fabric. 8) It's a really good time to be a free agent infielder. For the second straight offseason, there was a group of star shortstops ready to cash in at the top of the market -- and this year's players certainly got paid. All told, Turner, Bogaerts, Correa and Swanson raked in a combined guaranteed $957 million over 35 total years, setting a new standard for what free agents who play the sport's premium position can command. Another infield position that it clearly pays to play in free agency is first base. Just look at the ages guys are signing at: Josh Bell and Trey Mancini are still pups at 30, but Anthony Rizzo , Brandon Belt , Jose Abreu , Carlos Santana , Matt Carpenter and Justin Turner are far from it -- Rizzo is 33 up to Turner's 38 -- and yet they're still getting paid. And not just getting paid, but Rizzo, Abreu, Carpenter and Turner all got multiple years. Sweet gig if you can land it. So what should we expect for players who play on the dirt in upcoming free agent classes? Well, beyond Machado, the best infield options in 2023-24 are Chapman, Rosario, Kolten Wong and Gio Urshela . The next season is better, but even then, neither Anderson nor Adames is a $250 million player (yet). And in 2025-26, third base is again a hole, second base is thin (Jake Cronenworth ) and shortstop is Bo Bichette , Tommy Edman and Nico Hoerner . Between the scarcity and the baseline set by the big four shortstops this winter, the most valuable commodity for a player in the coming years might well be an infielder's glove. They can only hope that their free agent periods are as lucrative as the industry-shaking class of 2022-23.