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What would MLB players gain by boycotting spring training?

A deeper look at the possibility and implications of this latest threat.

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Otto Gruele Jr./Getty Images

I’ve run out of ways to describe the pace of this off season. To even call it a lukewarm stove seems like hyperbole at this point. The stove is off. Pitchers and catchers are supposed to report in 12 days and 22 of the top 50 free agents, according to CBS Sports’ free agent tracker, remain unsigned. You can take a look at the unsigned free agents and where CBS ranked them originally in the chart below:

Still unsigned free agents

2 J.D. Martinez (30) OF Unsigned
3 Yu Darvish (31) RHSP Unsigned
5 Jake Arrieta (31) RHSP Unsigned
6 Eric Hosmer (28) 1B Unsigned
7 Mike Moustakas (29) 3B Unsigned
8 Lance Lynn (30) RHSP Unsigned
9 Alex Cobb (30) RHSP Unsigned
11 Todd Frazier (31) 3B Unsigned
14 Logan Morrison (30) 1B Unsigned
16 Jonathan Lucroy (31) C Unsigned
17 Greg Holland (32) RHRP Unsigned
21 Carlos Gomez (32) OF Unsigned
23 Neil Walker (32) 2B Unsigned
26 Carlos Gonzalez (32) OF Unsigned
31 Eduardo Nunez (30) IF Unsigned
32 Andrew Cashner (31) RHSP Unsigned
33 Jaime Garcia (31) LHSP Unsigned
37 Tony Watson (32) LHRP Unsigned
39 Lucas Duda (31) 1B Unsigned
41 Jon Jay (32) OF Unsigned
46 Jarrod Dyson (33) OF Unsigned
48 Jason Vargas (35) LHSP Unsigned
49 Chris Tillman (29) RHSP Unsigned
Unsigned free agents, positions and rankings CBS Sports

The situation has led to some pretty remarkable possibilities as we head towards spring training, including a notable free agent threatening to sit out until the midpoint of the season when he feels he’ll be treated more fairly, the possibility of a free-agent run spring training camp for players who are still unsigned and, today’s latest bombshell, and the impetus for this post: the co-owner of CAA Baseball conveying that players are threatening to boycott spring training. You can read the letter in its entirety below:

The key quote:

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. The voices are getting louder and they are uniting in a way not seen since 1994.

It continues:

There is a rising tide among players for radical change. A fight is brewing. And it may begin with one, maybe two, and perhaps 1,200 willing to follow. A boycott of Spring Training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change.

Van Wagenen is a major agent as you can see from ESPN’s reporting :

Van Wagenen represents such prominent players as Ryan Zimmerman, Robinson Cano, Jacob deGrom, Yoenis Cespedes and Ian Desmond. The CAA group also represents current free agents Todd Frazier, Andrew Cashner, Jon Jay, Jason Vargas, Chris Young and Matt Belisle -- all of whom remain unsigned.

The threat is pretty clear, Van Wagenen is introducing the harbinger of a strike. Considering the extreme nature of that threat, I wanted to take a look at a couple of of implications of this language.

The Legalese

Van Wagenen is a savvy guy and he’s pretty careful to use the term boycott rather than strike, even though he’s already brought up 1994. That’s because the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that the players signed last year is in effect until 2021 and the whole reason that exists is to prevent players from being able to strike on a whim. ESPN reports:

Although MLB declined to respond to Van Wagenen’s statement directly, the commissioner’s office has said privately that a spring training boycott would be a violation of baseball’s collective bargaining agreement.

The commissioner’s office is most likely correct, and despite Van Wagenen’s rhetoric today failure to show up to spring training would be legally questionable: Last night Ken Rosenthal of the Athletic reported:

Earlier this week, in conference calls that union officials held with player representatives, players asked about the viability of collectively refusing to show up at spring training until Feb. 24, the mandatory reporting date, according to sources. It was a significant step — signed players standing up for unsigned players — but the union informed the players that an organized action of that sort would constitute an unlawful strike in violation of the CBA, and the players dropped the idea, sources said.

While the Twitterati continue to buzz about the threat of a boycott, Rosenthal’s reporting seems to suggest that, for now that would be unlikely because it is illegal. Since the inception of the first CBA in 1968 there hasn’t been an illegal work stoppage in baseball. Even the mid-season strike of 1981 over free agency was legal since it was the result of a dispute over the findings of the joint study commission on free agent compensation. A boycott of spring training that broke the CBA would be unprecedented.

The Fallout

Obviously my Twitter feed isn’t a representative sample of baseball fandom, but my cursory read of this situation today really looks like the MLBPA could be overplaying their hand with threats of boycott. For any sympathy they have received over this off season there seems to be an equal amount of recognition that the owners are just looking for the best deal. Again, from Rosenthal’s reporting:

“We’ve given the owners and teams an excuse not to pay top free agents, to have a reason to say no,” Moss said. “The only reason those things are there is because we bargained them in...

...“Everybody wants to look up and scream, ‘Collusion.’ Everybody wants to look up and scream, ‘This isn’t fair.’ But sooner or later, you have to take responsibility for a system you created for yourself. It’s our fault.”

While I’m sure this is little comfort to the 90+ free agents who remain unsigned, the MLBPA doesn’t have a lot of bargaining power at this moment in time, and they’d be well served to remember the fallout from 1994. This piece from August 1995 in The Baltimore Sun is a good representation of the mood:

“It’s been quite a year . . . a very difficult year,” said acting commissioner Bud Selig. “I hope that all the parties have learned something.”

What has been learned? The players and owners both found out that the patience of the fans was not unlimited. Attendance was off substantially during the early months of the ‘95 season, as much as 26 percent across the board. Television ratings for the All-Star Game were down as well, apparently proving that even the sport’s most popular players were not immune to simmering fan discontent.

Everybody lost. The owners ran afoul of the National Labor Relations Board and were forced to withdraw an implemented settlement that would have imposed a salary cap. The players ended up taking a pay cut anyway, because the financial damage caused by the strike forced many teams to reduce payroll. The average salary dropped about 9 percent, even before it was prorated to account for the shorter schedule.

Last year at this time baseball finally looked resurgent as young, fun teams like the Cubs and the Indians shook off years of mediocrity with teams that should be loaded with talent for the foreseeable future. This year story after story highlights the profitability of most teams. Baseball has a lot of reasons for optimism, but owners and players should tread with caution. While the margins they are looking at for contracts and profits are often in the tens of millions of dollars, the hearts of fans are not nearly so easily bought.

Perhaps both sides should remember what Bud Selig learned from the last strike and pause before further escalating this particular conflict. Otherwise fans and teams will be looking at a long four years until the next CBA negotiation.

”Painful? Yes,” Selig said. “Traumatic? It has been terribly difficult. But from a different perspective, it will not have been in .. vain if people learn from it. If we forge a new relationship for the next generation, it will have been worthwhile.”