One week from pitchers and catchers, Major League Baseball and its players escalated their war of words in response to 2018’s historically sluggish free agent market.
Top free agents have gone unsigned, with names like J.D. Martinez, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta and Yu Darvish still available, among the 100-plus free agents still in search of their next job as spring training screams into the picture.
Tony Clark, Executive Director of the MLB Players Association, insists his players have no intention of boycotting spring training, though he did take a moment Tuesday to amplify his concerns.
“Pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona in one week,” Clark said, in a statement issued in both English and Spanish. “A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs.
“Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season. This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom. this conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”
One hour later, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred issued a response to Clark, essentially pointing the finger back at the players, for their agents’ failure to “accurately assess the market.”
“Our Clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans,” said Manfred in a league-issued statement. “Owners own teams for one reason: they want to win. In Baseball, it has always been true that Clubs go through cyclical, multi-year strategies directed at winning.
“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.”
Not since 1994-95 has Major League Baseball experienced a work stoppage, and between shortened seasons and the cancellation of the World Series in ’94, baseball was slow to recover the trust of its fans. Though lasting scars were left, as some fans never returned.
Last week, one of the top representing agents in baseball, Brodie Van Wagenen, ominously warned of a “rising tide” of players unifying against the league: “Bottom line, the players are upset. No, they are outraged. Players in the midst of long-term contracts are as frustrated as those still seeking employment. Their voices are getting louder and they are uniting in a way not seen since 1994.”
“There is a rising tide among players for radical change,” Van Wagenen went on to write. “A fight is brewing. And it may begin with one, maybe two, and perhaps 1,200 willing to follow. A boycott of Spring Training maybe be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change.”
Not only do both sides present a widening gap in their perception of the problem; that they somehow remain further apart, this close to spring training, than when free agency began, seems to spell bad news for future attempts at labor peace.