SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Diamondbacks closer Greg Holland closes his eyes, takes a deep breath and allows those unpleasant memories to slowly trickle back into his thoughts.
Bryce Harper is still unsigned. So is Manny Machado. And Dallas Keuchel. And Craig Kimbrel. And Marwin Gonzalez. And Josh Harrison. And Adam Jones. And …
Holland, a three-time All-Star, former saves leader and a World Series champion, has been there. Done that.
And he sure wasn’t about to do it again.
“I wasn’t going to go through what I did a year ago,” Holland said. “I wasn’t going to play the waiting game again. I couldn’t do it. Free agency isn’t nearly as glamorous as I thought it would be.
“These days, it’s a strange thing.”
Holland, one of the prized free-agent relievers after a 2017 season during with he led the National League in saves with the Rockies, sat out all of spring training a year ago. He kept waiting for a big contract, only to eventually sign a one-year deal on opening day with the Cardinals — and then endure a living nightmare.
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He can’t help but worry about his peers who remain unemployed now, knowing how it ruined his season and damaged others who signed late.
“It’s easy to say, “Be patient,’ but at this time of year,” Holland tells USA TODAY Sports, “you don’t have any patience. It’s almost like a stalemate type of thing. I hope guys can hook on with a team quickly and not miss too much of spring training.
“Looking back, it definitely had an effect on me.”
The Phillies, who are deep in negotiations with Harper, would hate to envision a scenario where they sign Harper to a $300 million deal and he struggles at the outset because he missed the start of spring training. No different for the Padres, who have offered Machado the biggest contract in franchise history. It’s even a bigger risk for the pitchers, who need a longer spring than the position players.
“I think it hurts everyone,” Holland said. “When I signed, guys in the [Cardinals] clubhouse embraced me, but I didn’t have those two months of spring training where I could really interact and build relationships with a lot of guys in the clubhouse.
“I think for anyone, you want to build relationships and have that report with your teammates. I’ve been in clubhouses that meshed really well, and that quantifies into a lot of wins, having that time together.
The fear for these free-agent players and their perspective teams is that if they don’t sign soon, the lengthy wait could cause irreparable damage.
Teams already lost the benefit of marketing their prized free agents all winter, while also missing out on building a relationship with their star player and the community.
The players, once they sign, will have to scramble to find a place to stay in spring training and a home for their family during the season. They will miss out on time to bond with their manager, coaches and teammates.
And no matter how much they’ve been training, they will come to spring training behind everyone else.
“Physically, I felt great, I felt healthy,’’ said Holland, who worked out at agent Scott Boras’ training facility last winter in Newport Beach, California. “But you’re throwing to college guys, and a week later you’re pitching in the major leagues in a tie game. You can only emulate so much of a big-league game.
“Pitchers need to pitch to major-league hitters and hitters need to face living pitching from major-league pitchers. The quicker you can get into a scenario where you’re facing major-league talent on a consistent basis, you’re going to be more successful.”
Certainly, Holland is living proof to the adverse effect of missing an entire spring. Starting pitchers Jake Arrieta with the Phillies and Lance Lynn with the Twins also dealt with struggles last season after signing in March.
Holland was discussing a three-year contract worth about $50 million in December 2017 with the Rockies. Still, it was less than the four-year, $62 million deal that Mark Melancon signed with the Giants the previous year, and far less than Aroldis Chapman’s five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees and Kenley Jansen’s five-year, $80 million contract with the Dodgers.
“I kind of wanted to see what the market had in store for me,’’ Holland said. “I thought it definitely was going to happen [with the Rockies], thought it was a perfect fit, but they didn’t want to wait around and signed Wade Davis [three years, $52 million] instead. I thought we were still in negotiations. It was a weird situation.’’
The next thing he knew, no one was calling, and he wound up signing a one-year, $14 million deal with the Cardinals on opening day, only to be released four months later. He finished his season with the Nationals, and then signed a one-year, $3.25 million contract two weeks ago with the Diamondbacks.
“I don’t like to make excuses,’’ Holland said, “but when you pitch to an 8.00 ERA, there’s got to be some varying circumstances around it. You want to do well because you want to make good on your contract, you got there late, and I might have rushed myself when I probably wasn’t ready. I put a lot of undue pressure on myself.
“It all kind of snowballed for me and spiraled out of control for me.”
Holland, who led the NL with 41 saves and 58 games finished in 2017, didn’t save a single game with the Cardinals. He went 0-2 with a 7.92 ERA, giving up 34 hits and 22 walks in 25 innings. He was released on July 27.
He joined the Nationals in August, and reverted to his All-Star form, going 2-0 with a 0.84 ERA, while allowing nine hits in 21 1/3 innings.
“I might have rushed myself when I probably wasn’t ready,” Holland said, “and wanted to make good on the contract they gave me. I pitched bad out of the gate, put a lot of undue pressure on myself, and instead of turning the page like I normally do, it kind of snowballed for me.”
Now, he not only has a fresh start but a fresh perspective.
He empathizes for the unemployed free agents, particularly the middle-class that’s getting squeezed. He can’t fathom that Kimbrel, who has 333 saves, including 42 last season for the World Series champion Red Sox, still is home.
“I think in a perfect world, teams and players would be much happier if they got things done in a more timely manner than having this stuff drag out,” Holland said. “There’s a business aspect to it, for sure, but I don’t think players are trying to hold teams hostage or anything. They want to be on teams. And they can help teams win.
“That’s what this game is supposed to be about, winning. If you want to win, you’re supposed to have the best players on your team. We shouldn’t have the best players in the world still out looking for jobs.
“It has got to change because it’s hurting everybody.”