'We're going to walk off the cliff together': The remaking of the MLBPA in baseball's new labor war
On one of the many phone calls this week in which the Major League Baseball Players Association rank and file tried to figure out what happened to its sport and how it could fight back, a veteran who had signed a modest free-agent deal this offseason spoke up. Amid complaints about the effects of the collective-bargaining agreement many are blaming for perhaps the worst free-agent market in the game’s history, the veteran vouched for the labor deal and asked why it was catching so much grief.
Another player chimed in: Because you have a job, he said, and Jake Arrieta doesn’t.
Some chuckled at the gallows humor while others seethed at the reality that 10 days before pitchers and catchers start reporting to spring training, dozens of legitimate major leaguers remain unemployed, dozens more players are staring at one-year deals worth well below what they figured free agency would bear and dozens still are coming to terms with the inevitability of signing a minor league deal with no money guaranteed.
As the MLBPA confronts a toxic labor environment for the first time in nearly a quarter century, a number of obstacles complicate its efforts to establish an identity and strategy, sources familiar with the situation told Yahoo Sports. Players are engaged as they’ve been in decades and yet find themselves with a steep learning curve to grasp the intricacies of labor strife. They are furious with ownership about what they feel was the betrayal of a strong partnership that enriched both and yet have not hesitated to question union leadership on its culpability. They want to develop a long-term plan to insulate future free agents from such a winter and yet not neglect those for whom that limbo is a months-long reality. They see franchise values growing and profits at an all-time high and yet they’re unsure how to wheedle what they feel is their fair share out of ownership.
The players’ side is growing increasingly loud. Last week, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen talked about a strike when discussing repercussions of the free-agent freeze. On Friday, CAA agent Brodie Van Wagenen tweeted “there is a rising tide among players for radical change” and that “a fight is brewing.” For all the charges of grandstanding, the sentiments are clear: The players feel as though the fulcrum of their union, free agency, is under attack by ownership. And the potential repercussions horrify them.
A rising tide… @MLB_PLAYERS pic.twitter.com/jwkoiiI0yt
— Brodie Van Wagenen (@bvanwagenen) February 2, 2018
The rapidity with which the market changed staggered the players, and channeling their fire into effective policy is the primary goal – and one at which they continue to work out kinks. During one of the conference calls, players rallied around the notion of not showing up to spring training until Feb. 24, the mandatory reporting date and at least a week after most players typically arrive. The excitement for the plan, which was first reported by The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, was palpable. One problem: Not only would it run the risk of being deemed an illegal strike were the league to take the union to court, the players’ copious use of text messages spreading the idea left a trail of evidence that proved the intent.
All of it is a lesson for the players, who for years took the union for granted and neither appreciated nor understood the importance of two absolutes: education and unanimity. A goal of the conference calls is to offer both: an ability to learn about the issues and rebuild cohesion simultaneously. Then again, as teams show zero desire to budge now and longtime agents fret that the supposed salve of the bonanza 2018-19 free-agent class is actually going to exacerbate the problem, the players are asking themselves, with understandable trepidation, whether their attempts to quell this disruption might be too late.
The reality of what the players face revealed itself in Toronto on Thursday night. At a Pitch Talks event, Ross Atkins, the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, was asked by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi about the free-agent market.
“Teams are getting to a certain point and saying this is our value,” Atkins said. “That’s good business. … Teams are valuing players in a similar way.”
The similar valuation of players sets off collusion alarms at the MLBPA, which all winter has tracked trends to determine if teams are working together to set prices. What Atkins said next, however, is perhaps more substantive in understanding one element of many contributing to the stagnant market.
“When you’re talking about free agency, you’re talking about older players,” he said. “I think the industry is realizing that older players have been compensated – the players’ association and there’s a few agents that would really be disappointed in hearing me say this, but the aging curve has potentially been overcompensated in the past. That seems to be correcting a bit.”
For years, teams spent billions of dollars on free agents in their 30s. The about-face wobbled the union particularly because it had collectively bargained specifically with the idea of funneling money toward free agency. MLB wanted a capped international amateur system. The union agreed. MLB wanted essentially a cap on domestic amateurs, too. The union agreed. MLB didn’t want a large increase in the competitive-balance tax, which large-revenue teams are treating as a salary ceiling. The union agreed. As the league sought to shut off money spigots elsewhere, implicit was the notion they’d be redirected into a bigger free agency pipe. Only that is dried and rusted, too, and it’s not just Arrieta and Yu Darvish and J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer whom it affects. It’s the middle and lower tiers of players whose forays into free agency have been more nightmare than Valhalla.
“I don’t know what they want anyone to do,” one league official said. “Owners are not going to say we understand you’re pissed off and start signing guys. They can cry. They can scream. We can’t do anything about it. Even if you took away the CBT changes, most of these guys wouldn’t have jobs. It’s the second tier that’s being affected. There are a lot of smart GMs, and they aren’t gonna overpay guys.”
Said one of those GMs whom the industry considers smart: “Basically, teams don’t spend unless they think it’s the difference of getting into the tournament. No incremental improvements.”
This is a crucial point. It’s not just the Dodgers and New York Yankees and San Francisco Giants insisting on staying under the $197 million CBT threshold. It’s the dozen or so teams tanking, not competing or crying poor. It’s up to 40 percent of Major League Baseball treating the 2018 regular season with little regard for winning. It has halved the teams treating free agency with urgency, and the trickle-down effect is the current game of chicken: teams waiting on players’ price tags to drop and players holding firm.
“At some point, the teams start to break apart because they want to win, and that’s going to happen soon,” one prominent agent said. “I think they’ve done their job already. They’ve suppressed the market.”
Hosmer is seeking a nine-year deal from the Kansas City Royals. They haven’t budged past seven. Martinez is fixed on a seven- or eight-year deal in the $25 million-plus-a-year range and is steeling himself to hold out. Darvish has received multiple nine-figure offers.
“They’ll get paid,” the baseball official said. “The others … ”
The others, he admitted, are in trouble. And while a number of star players with large contracts have taken up the fight on behalf of those players, it doesn’t solve the problem of those who are too old or get squeezed out by a positional glut or fall prey to other perils of the market. The union’s raison d’etre is to fight for all players, not simply the best.
And fight they are, in ways large and small, stentorian and symbolic. With almost every team in baseball taking hardline stances in arbitration, the number of cases going to trial jumped to 26, the most since the 1994 strike. In some cases, the spread in the money players requested compared to what teams offered was minuscule – as small as $100,000.
One player considers arbitration so farcical he wanted to make a mockery of it in his filing number. He asked for the final six digits to be 420,069. Eventually he decided against bringing that number in front of the arbitration panel. The notion of doing so nonetheless resembles what plenty of other players are asking themselves these days: How can we screw baseball like it’s screwing us?
The premise of that question, of course, is up for debate. If it is not colluding – and the league has denied doing so publicly and in meetings with the union – MLB can be accused of running its business in cutthroat fashion, taking advantage of a labor force that agreed to a collective-bargaining agreement against its best interests and prioritizing profits and franchise values over the happiness of the workers. It does so knowing men whose salaries average $4 million-plus don’t exactly engender sympathy and that sports fans tend to side with ownership in labor disputes.
This, one longtime agent said, will only galvanize the players. “The war drums today are louder than they were in 1993,” he said. “There is real anger. Real anger.” And it’s not simply about this winter, about how amid dozens of free agents searching for jobs, the league is trying to pass new pace-of-play rules. “Like they’re asking about the flooring when the whole house is on fire,” the agent said.
No, this is about what the winter of 2017-18 portends. With a methodical assault, teams have degraded free agency. “That scares the [expletive] out of me,” another agent said. “One of my clients a few days ago said, ‘Why do I want to go to free agency if it’s going to be like this?’ We’re losing the messaging war.”
With that, he fears, teams will prey on players – particularly young ones – to lock in long-term security through contracts they sign before free agency. Often these deals buy out free-agent years, delaying their hitting the open market until their 30s, by which time their age prevents them from receiving the mega-deal 26-year-olds Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will receive after this season.
Not even a sluggish market will stop Harper and Machado from cashing in. The concern is what happens to the players beyond them. With so many one-year contracts left to be signed in the current free-agent class, the size of 2018-19’s will grow significantly and shrink the market. The combination of huge-money deals, teams going back over the CBT threshold and not wanting to pay the tax on free-agent signings, and the glut of players “is going to be Armageddon” the longtime agent said.
“This will pale in comparison to what happens next year,” he said. “When 85 percent of the money goes to 15 percent of the players, 85 percent of the players are going to hear, ‘I don’t have the money.’ ”
The league official believes this is more pessimism than realism. “Watch,” he said. “Over a five-year period, spending is going to go up.” If that is true, the league has some work to do, with payrolls this season almost certain to drop year over year.
In the meantime, the battles for power on the players’ side are just beginning. To see which players become the most prominent voices of opposition. And whether agents, who felt left out of the last negotiations, can convince Clark to use their strategies. And how Clark and his lieutenants can reshape the market when the current basic agreement runs through 2021.
The MLBPA sees this as an opportunity – one laden with pitfalls, yes, but with the ability to invigorate a union that needs mending. Clark can prove himself an effective leader. The players can rally around one another instead of squabbling over issues like the international draft. And they can apply pressure in the same fashion of unions past.
“The owners have to realize they’re about to jeopardize an unbelievably good thing,” said a source on the players’ side. “If they don’t recognize it, they don’t see where this is going. Everybody’s going to be in unison. And we’re all going to walk right off the cliff together.”