By Chris Cwik

Free agency provides general managers with the opportunity to change the fortune of their franchise in a single quick move. In some cases, this can lead to multiple championships; in others, a franchise-killing contract. There's always risk involved, and while some players are better risks than others, the chance that even the best will remain effective over the entire length of their contract is still fairly low.

Those standard concerns are especially magnified when the market lacks elite talent -- and this year's crop of available free agents seems to fall into that category. Outside of a strong top four (Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo and Brian McCann), the market is littered with questionable starting pitching and effective veterans on their last legs.

And this season's crop marks just the beginning of a string of underwhelming free-agent markets. Teams have adjusted, and are finding ways to keep their elite players off the market. Clubs looking to rebuild will now have to resort to alternative methods to obtain top-flight players.

It's tough out there, really, and about to get tougher. Clayton Kershaw may be eligible for free agency following next season, but the Dodgers will likely sign him long-term. That's even more likely to happen with 2016 or 2017 free agents. The Nationals have expressed interest in extending both Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann. It looks as if Giancarlo Stanton is a lock to hit the market in three years, but who knows whether his situation will change drastically in the next three seasons. Once you remove 3-4 of the best players from the list below, the batch doesn't look as strong.

A look at the top free agents available in the coming years shows the situation is unlikely to change much anytime soon. The below chart shows the top possible free agents over the next few seasons, but the list is somewhat deceptive, as there's no way all of these players will actually hit free agency:

2015
2016
2017
C - Russell Martin
C - Matt Wieters
C - Jason Castro
SS - Hanley Ramirez
1B - Chris Davis
C - Wilson Ramos
SS - Asdrubal Cabrera
2B - Ben Zobrist
1B - Freddie Freeman
3B - Pablo Sandoval
2B - Howie Kendrick
3B - Martin Prado
3B - Chase Headley
SS - Ian Desmond
OF - Giancarlo Stanton
DH - David Ortiz
3B - Miguel Cabrera
OF - Jay Bruce
SP - Clayton Kershaw
OF - Justin Upton
OF - Alex Gordon
SP - Max Scherzer
OF - Yoenis Cespedes
OF - Carlos Gomez
SP - Homer Bailey
OF - Jason Heyward
SP - Stephen Strasburg
SP - Jon Lester
SP - David Price
SP - Brandon Beachy
SP - Mat Latos
SP - Andrew Cashner
SP - Jeff Samardzija
RP - Craig Kimbrel
SP - Jordan Zimmermann
RP - Greg Holland
RP - Aroldis Chapman

 

There are a number of reasons elite players are no longer being allowed to hit free agency. Teams have been much smarter recently about signing young stars to affordable deals that extend into their free-agent seasons; the Rays have been one of the main proponents of this strategy, signing both Evan Longoria and Matt Moore early in their careers. This isn't a new strategy, as teams have attempted to retain their elite talent in the past, particularly at tough to replace positions. In the last seven years of free agency, it has been difficult to find strong up-the-middle-talent. Once teams find useful parts at those positions -- shortstop, second base, catcher and center field -- they usually hold onto those players.

Along the same lines, many of these contracts include club options. This may be the biggest reason top talent is being taken out of free agency: Teams can offer young player big contracts that cover their arbitration years, and then tag on options that cover early years of free agency. Moore's deal includes two options that will cover the first two seasons he's eligible for free agency. If he's still an effective pitcher following the 2017 season, the Rays get to keep him for $9 million. If he turns out another solid year, they can retain him for $10 million, keeping him off the market again. On the other hand, Moore could get injured, or suddenly turn ineffective, and the team could allow him to walk. In that scenario, Moore would hardly be considered an elite talent on the market. Teams could take a shot on him, hoping he returns to form, but few would pay top dollar. Club options ensure that top talent stays with their original club, and allows teams to cut bait on players who are no longer producing at a strong level, thus watering down the free-agent market.

With those factors in place, it's going to be tough for rebuilding teams to utilize the market as a source of immediate talent. While it's asking quite a bit, it's still possible for these teams to adjust. In fact, some already have. On top of the Rays, the Royals took a similar approach with Salvador Perez, signing him to a five-year deal that includes three options. He's now signed to one of the most team-friendly deals in the game. This is easier said than done, of course: Teams still need to hit on their draft picks/young players, identify which ones deserve long-term offers and hope those players pan out.

Trades have also become more important. The Rays were able to restock their system by dealing James Shields last offseason, and will look for a similar type of deal this winter with David Price. Once it becomes apparent that a premier player will not re-sign, or has priced themselves out of a team's budget, it's time for that team to explore a deal. This is the easiest way for a team to acquire impact prospects aside from drafting, though it comes at a price.

The draft is another place where rebuilding teams can try and game the system, though changes in the newest CBA have made it more difficult to go over slot for premium players. If a rebuilding team is unable to trade away a player it cannot re-sign, that team is has to hope they can get a draft pick as compensation once that player signs with another club. It's not ideal, but at least they get something for an exiting player. The Astros were also able to find somewhat of a work-around for the new CBA -- they managed to save money early by selecting Carlos Correa with the first pick, which allowed them to spend more money on players who fell due to monetary demands. This strategy won't always work, though. The Astros were fortunate they were in a draft where there was not a consensus number one pick.

Of course, it is still possible for these teams to utilize free agency, but they need to be smart about which players they choose to sign. Both the Rays and Cubs have done well in this area recently. The Cubs took shots on injured, bounce-back pitchers Scott Baker and Scott Feldman. While Baker didn't pan out, his salary was negligible. Feldman performed well, and the team was able to turn him around for younger talent at the trade deadline. The Rays have been good about identifying low-cost, breakout candidates. Very few analysts saw James Loney or Casey Kotchman churning out above-average seasons with the Rays, so this is a case of the team having an excellent scouting and analytics department. Tampa Bay has also done a great job turning over their bullpen each season by bringing in cheap players and getting the most out of them; the team rarely signs relievers to multi-year deals or spends significant money on relief pitching.

The other strategy was utilized by the Red Sox last season. The team signed both Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli to three-year deals with high annual salaries. Both were initially supposed to sign for three-years, $39 million, though a hip issue forced Napoli to renegotiate. While both deals seems like bargains now, they were widely viewed as possible overpays at the time. The thought process behind these types of deals is that the team is willing to overpay for players in their prime, but won't commit to these players once they reach a certain age. While $13 million isn't such a lot of money for the Red Sox to swallow should Victorino succumb to age in the last year of his contract, it's a significant chunk for teams like the Rays or Athletics. This prevents teams from signing players to a Josh Hamilton-type deal. That contract already looks questionable for the Angels, and the team is still on the hook for four more seasons.

There are times when it still makes sense for a team to go for broke and try to sign elite free agents. But it needs to be the kind of situation where signing that player would take the team from 85 wins to 90 wins in a season -- in other words, it only makes sense to go all in if the move will bumps the team into the playoff hunt. This is what the Royals attempted with James Shields. Though that didn't work one in year one, he still has a shot to take them to the postseason in the final year of his contract. A move might also pay off with prospects: The Brewers went all in when they acquired CC Sabathia, and it led to a playoff appearance. The same thing happened when the team acquired Zack Greinke. In both cases, the team received something once those players left; Sabathia netted them a draft pick, while Greinke brought back Jean Segura.

Again, this is easier said than done. While both the Astros and Cubs have utilized smart strategies in order to rebuild recently, neither team seems close to their ultimate goal yet. The Royals are close, but even their attempt to get Shields didn't push them into the playoffs. The Pirates and Rays stand as the most recent examples of teams that were able to rebuild without large payrolls. Both teams experienced multiple years at the bottom of the league before they slowly began to climb to respectability.

The true challenge for these franchises will be replicating that success for multiple seasons, creating a small window where they can compete for a World Series. The margin for error is already tiny. Taking elite players out of free agency will only make it more difficult for rebuilding teams to find a way back to the playoffs. 

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Chris Cwik writes for various baseball sites on the internet, CBSSports.com and FanGraphs.com. He has also contributed to ESPN and the Hardball Times Baseball Annual. Follow him on Twitter at @Chris_Cwik.