You all know this offseason has been quite quiet regarding free-agent signings.
And we now stand just a little more than a week before the first pitcher and catcher workouts for most teams.
You can almost hear the crack of the bat, right?
No, instead you can hear a war of words starting. Tuesday morning, MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark issued this statement:
Statement of #MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark Regarding the Integrity of the Game— #MLBPA (@MLB_PLAYERS) February 6, 2018
Declaración del Director Ejecutivo de MLBPA Tony Clark Sobre la Integridad del Deportehttps://t.co/CMcTq09D3m pic.twitter.com/AkBDLgNpM2
“Race to the bottom”? “The very integrity of our game?” Well, Rob Manfred isn’t having any of that!
Major League Baseball issued the following statement today in response to the comments made by MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark: pic.twitter.com/JE2AFRpEDZ— MLB Communications (@MLB_PR) February 6, 2018
Yikes. Those are fightin’ words, I’d say, and we’re still four seasons away from any potential work stoppage. I’d say these statements upped the chances of that happening by quite a bit. Fortunately, the two sides have four years to calm down and put together an agreement that satisfies everyone.
It’s hard to be sympathetic to either side here. I certainly wouldn’t want to take the side of billionaire team owners who certainly do have enough money to go around. Many of the players do, too, and when nine-figure contract offers are supposedly being given, it’s difficult to take the side of the player who says, “That’s not enough,” and still sits unsigned with a week to go before training camps officially open.
The agreement is one that players and owners agreed to little more than a year ago. It was stated in an article by Yahoo’s Jeff Passan last month that players seemed more interested in working conditions than money at the time the agreement was reached:
During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.
“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.
Though something of an oversimplification, there was more than a kernel of truth to it. Meaningful negotiating time was spent on issues the league happily accepted in exchange for stronger financial positions. The players wanted a chef in the clubhouse. The players wanted two seats apiece on spring training buses. The players wanted more off-days. Lifestyle and amenities took precedent more than ever.
This is all true, and the owners have indeed done this, particularly the Cubs, who have put together a state-of-the-art clubhouse where management has encouraged players to spend much of their day there, as that way they have better food, workout facilities, etc.
But the same article also noted that the current economic structure of the game is almost irretrievably broken:
“I’m just not sure that the structure that’s been in place for all of these years makes sense anymore,” one union official said. “Now, whether anybody is prepared to blow that up is a completely different question.”
“Of course it doesn’t make sense,” a league official concurred. “We pay you the minimum for three years and arbitration for three or four years, and then you get paid more in free agency for your decline?”
The latter paragraph is the key. It doesn’t make sense in modern baseball to have those arb years, likely the player’s peak years from about age 26 to 30, be the years in which they get paid reasonably well but not at the top of the profession, and then they expect to get paid even more for what are likely to be at least some decline years in their mid 30s.
“Blow it up”? They might have to. A system where a player might be able to get to restricted free agency after, say, three years, with his original team allowed to match offers, could get players more money for their peak seasons while giving the original club a chance to retain him. Then the player could have unrestricted free agency after six seasons, or something along those lines. Obviously something like this would have to be fleshed out, but this system, which has been place largely intact (with tweaks mainly aimed at compensation for teams losing players) since the 1970s, doesn’t seem to match the conditions under which baseball operates in the year 2018.
It’s certainly true, too, that the percentage of overall revenue going to players has dropped precipitously over the last few years:
And so, could you imply collusion? Maybe, or maybe management has just gotten smarter with analytics. It used to be the case that this was the milieu of the agent, particularly Scott Boras. Boras used to put together books’ worth of data to present to teams on his clients. It’s clear that the teams, with every club now having large analytics departments, are doing the same.
So collusion? Or just smart business practice?
The players yet unsigned are, I suspect, doing themselves a disservice. The offers aren’t likely going to get any bigger before spring training begins, and as the season gets closer teams might just move on and go with what they’ve got. Like the Brewers, for example:
Despite all the speculation, doesn't sound like #Brewers are close to signing FA pitcher or trading for pitcher. In fact, GM David Stearns just told me, "At this point, I anticipate going (to camp) with our current group."— Tom (@Haudricourt) February 3, 2018
Or the Rangers:
Doesn't sound likely Yu Darvish will be returning to the #Rangers pic.twitter.com/6oicyXGnab— MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM (@MLBNetworkRadio) February 2, 2018
And this isn’t even addressing the issue of pay for minor leaguers, who are paid shamefully small amounts of money in a $10 billion business.
It’s not the way we’d like a baseball season to begin. It’s about now when, in the words of Bart Giamatti, we begin to think of “sunshine and high skies,” not labor disputes. But here we are. It almost — and remember I said almost — makes me long for the days of Bud Selig as commissioner.
And if the players want public opinion on their side, they’re probably going to have to find a better leader than Tony Clark. Well respected by his peers, he’s probably not the guy they need to get them the deal they want.