Baseball’s simmering labor dispute over this winter’s extraordinarily slow free agent market escalated sharply Friday when a prominent player-agent accused owners of “coordinated” behavior to depress the market — otherwise known as collusion — and implied the players might organize a boycott of spring training “if [owners’] behavior doesn’t change.”
“The players are upset. No, they are outraged. … Their voices are getting louder and they are uniting in a way not seen since 1994,” Van Wagenen wrote, referring to the year of the last players’ strike. “There is a rising tide among players for radical change. A fight is brewing. … A boycott of spring training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change.”
Players and union officials have hesitated to use the word “collusion” in discussing this winter’s market, but Van Wagenen strongly implied it Friday, saying the owners’ behavior this offseason “has changed dramatically” from past offseasons and “feels coordinated, rightly or wrongly.”
“Many club Presidents and General Managers with whom we negotiate are frustrated with the lack of funds [made available by ownership] to sign the plethora of good players still available, raising further suspicion of institutional influence over spending,” Van Wagenen wrote.
With spring training camps due to open in less than two weeks, this has been the slowest free agent market in recent years, if not ever. Among the players considered the most desirable, only a handful have signed, and more than 110 free agents remain unsigned, among them top pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta and top hitters J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer.
Many explanations for the slow-moving market have been offered from the management side, including a lack of impactful free agents in their prime, a luxury tax that has acted as a soft salary cap, the number of large-payroll teams (such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers) that are pushing up against the luxury-tax threshold and the looming prospect of a star-studded free agent influx (including Bryce Harper and Manny Machado) next winter.
“Every [free agent] market is different. … Just like there have been some [years] where the lid got blown off in terms of player-salary growth, occasionally you’re going to have some that are not quite as robust,” Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters Thursday at the quarterly owners’ meetings in Los Angeles. An MLB spokesman said Friday that Manfred did not have a specific response to Van Wagenen’s post.
Another factor undoubtedly contributing to the slow spending is the increasing homogeneity of major league front offices, many of which — including some of the richest and most successful teams — are headed by young, Ivy League-educated GMs with analytical bents. Among these executives, there is a widespread belief that nine-figure contracts to free agents, especially those in their 30s, are generally a losing bet. In addition, the success of teams such as the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros has validated the strategy of tearing down (with small payrolls, youthful teams and often years of losing records) and building back up from within.
“It is unrealistic to think every [team] is going to have the exact same expectation to win on the exact same timetable,” Manfred said Thursday. “Teams have always done best when they bring a cohort of players together and that team matures together and grows together. I don’t see any conceptual change on that topic.”
But Van Wagenen’s post made clear the players’ belief that something more nefarious is happening and strongly hinted that baseball — which has enjoyed a period of relative labor peace since 1995 — has not heard the last from the union side in this increasingly ugly labor dispute.
“I would suggest that testing the will of 1,200 alpha males at the pinnacle of their profession is not a good strategy for 30 [owners] who are bound by a much smaller fraternity,” he wrote. Players “are united by a singular focus. Victory at all costs. They are willing to sweat for it; they are willing to sacrifice for it; they are willing to cry for it; and most importantly, they are willing to bleed for it.”
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