Players Association: MLB's stagnant free-agent market threatens integrity of the game

·MLB columnist
·6 min read
Tony Clark, Executive Director of the MLBPA, speaks during the 2018 Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards dinner on Sunday, January 28, 2018 at the Sheraton Times Square hotel in New York City. (Getty Images)
Tony Clark, Executive Director of the MLBPA, speaks during the 2018 Baseball Writers’ Association of America awards dinner on Sunday, January 28, 2018 at the Sheraton Times Square hotel in New York City. (Getty Images)

Citing “a significant number of teams … engaged in a race to the bottom,” Players Association executive director Tony Clark on Tuesday called the stagnant – and for some players non-existent — free-agent market, “[A] fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”

Clark’s statement, issued as players readied to report to spring training sites in Arizona and Florida, echoed the words of players and their agents in recent weeks, as the market turned from slow to sluggish to, for some, alarming.

Assuming there is no dam-break of player signings in the coming days, the bulk of baseball’s winter transactions will bleed into pitchers and catchers drills, and organizational rebuilding projects will continue for at least a third of the league, and the stories from those camps will focus less on the new faces and more on the absent ones.

Asked earlier Tuesday if he’d concluded the owners were acting in concert to lower wages (and therefore increase profits), Clark said, “No.”

What is next, then, for a union that is regarded as the strongest in sports remains the question? Support for a mass spring training protest appears thin, at best, and union leadership has publicly come out against it. Dozens of players, some among the best in the league, are without jobs. It’s nearly time to play baseball. What now?

“That is a good question for [MLB commissioner Rob Manfred] to be asked,” Clark said. “We’re all a part of the industry. There are a historic number of free agents available. These guys can’t make offers to themselves. There must be some level of engagement. … There are a significant number of players who aren’t weighing any offers or opportunities.”

Approximately an hour after the union publicized its dismay, Manfred shot back in his own statement: “It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned. What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures. It is the responsibility of players’ agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics, and the impact of the new Basic Agreement. To lay responsibility on the Clubs for the failure of some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted, and inflammatory.”

Clark stressed the notion of competitive integrity. The industry joke that more teams are angling for top draft picks than division titles falls flat in the union offices. Bottom line, baseball games are coming, good baseball players are available, and the sport has never been healthier.

“It is,” Clark said, “a very dangerous place to be.”

A generation of labor peace has given to turnover at the highest levels of the commissioner’s and union’s offices, and now to grumbling among the player rank and file that peace has been prioritized above simple economic fairness. Whether strategically (as some players suspect) or organically (as owners plead), this winter’s free agent market has been especially hard on players and their agents who expected business as usual. Less than a week before spring training camps open, however, dozens of players remain unsigned, including some of the game’s stars, and in some cases in the middle and lower tiers of free agency wholly unengaged. In November it was announced Major League Baseball had eclipsed $10 billion in annual revenue for 2017, and if that wasn’t enough to suggest reasonable profits for the 30 owners, then each would be gifted $50 million from the recent sale of BAMtech, a spin-off from MLB Advanced Media, to Disney.

So, all seemed promising for the likes of Yu Darvish, a good-sized handful of Scott Boras’ clients (J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Greg Holland), and other impact players. So far, none has signed. Many teams are rebuilding, some of which for the right reasons, others presumably riding the slash-and-recreate alibis of recent success stories in Houston and Chicago. Other teams are endeavoring to duck under the competitive balance tax threshold, treating the number — $197 million – as a semi-hard payroll cap. Some, perhaps, are holding their money for next year’s free-agent class, which could offer Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson and David Price.

In a written statement, player agent Brodie Van Wagenen accused owners of collusion and threatened a boycott of spring training. The union responded there would be no such action or, at the very least, that it had not recommended it. Boras frequently has railed against a climate he has called a “non-competitive cancer.” Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Kenley Jansen mused about how the players might just have to strike.

Meantime, several players seem to regret parts of the collective bargaining agreement, the CBT in particular.

Said Brandon Moss: “What we have done is we’ve given the owners and teams and franchises an excuse to not pay top free agents.”

And Kershaw: “Everybody talks about the CBT and all this stuff like which teams can’t spend and which teams can spend. Maybe that’s on the players’ association for what we agreed to. But at the same time we don’t care if they go over. They made enough money where they can spend money if they need to.”

Commissioner Manfred, in Beverly Hills last week for the quarterly owners meetings, framed the current climate otherwise.

“Baseball has always been a cyclical player business,” he said. “Teams have always done best when they bring a cohort of players together, and that group matures together and becomes competitive. I don’t see a conceptual change.”

As for his own culpability and that of the union, Clark said, “I don’t mind the debate, whether it’s in the clubhouse or in the union. It is a little early to draw conclusions. I think everybody is trying to appreciate how we find ourselves in a historic place at this point in time in the offseason. That is, how did we get here?”

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