The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

MLB’s dead winter has union and teams at each other’s throats as free agents sit unsigned

The Houston Astros, and the Chicago Cubs before them, won a World Series following a model that is now causing issues throughout MLB. (Matt Slocum/AP)

Major League Baseball’s 30 teams will begin opening their spring training camps in Florida and Arizona in another week, and it is all but certain that annual rite will take place amid an increasingly ominous and vitriolic labor dispute, the result of a slow-moving free agent market that has pitted management against the union in a way not seen in years.

On Tuesday, union chief Tony Clark raised the already-high rhetorical stakes, releasing a statement equating the roster-building strategy known as “tanking” to violating the “integrity of the game.”

“A record number of free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at all-time highs,” Clark said. “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 the game.”

More than 100 free agents remain unsigned, including many of the top talents on the market. According to ESPN Stats and Information, only nine players have signed contracts of three or more years this offseason, compared with 27 a year ago, while total spending on free agents this winter sits at $780 million, compared to $1.45 billion last winter and $2.53 billion the winter before that.

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Those gaps will close once top pitchers such as Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta and top hitters such as J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas eventually sign, but total spending on player salaries appears in danger of declining year-to-year for the first time since 2009 — in an industry that reported record revenues of more than $10 billion in 2017.

Also on Tuesday, MLB responded to Clark’s statement with one of its own, pointing out at least some of those still-unsigned free agents have received offers exceeding $100 million, accusing the players and their agents of misreading the market and implying the union is experiencing a case of buyer’s remorse over some of the economic concessions it agreed to in the current labor agreement.

“It is the responsibility of player’s agents,” MLB’s statement said, “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 failures or some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted and inflammatory.”

Tuesday’s exchange of pointed statements came in the wake of the incendiary comments made Friday by agent Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA, who suggested owners are colluding to keep salaries down and said “outraged” players are “uniting in a way not seen since 1994” — the last time players went on strike. Van Wagenen also hinted a spring-training boycott by players is possible, a stance the union has since backed down from.

Last month, Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, at the team’s annual fan fest in Los Angeles, told reporters, “Maybe we have to go on strike, to be honest with you.”

The union side, including Clark in his statement Tuesday, has focused its ire on the lower tier of teams that appear to be embracing the model known as tanking, in which a middling team downsizes its roster and payroll, stockpiles draft picks for several years and rebuilds around young players whom they control for six years. It was a strategy that paid off handsomely for the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, who both deployed it before winning the World Series in 2016 and 2017, respectively.

But as many as a dozen teams may be trying it this year, effectively sitting out the free agent market entirely and dramatically reducing the number of options for players. Instead of signing a handful of mid-level free agents in an effort to remain competitive while their young players develop, those teams are now content to lose 100-plus games with cheaper, homegrown players to pick higher in the following year’s draft and get a larger bonus pool from which to sign foreign amateurs.

Agent Scott Boras, in an interview with the Associated Press, called the strategy the “noncompetitive cancer” afflicting the game.

In its statement Tuesday, MLB addressed these sentiments, saying, “Owners own teams for one reason: they want to win. In Baseball, it has always been true that Clubs go through cyclical, multiyear strategies directed at winning.”

But this winter’s slow-moving market stems at least as much from the actions — or inactions — of high-payroll teams as from low-payroll ones. Motivated in part by the competitive-balance (or “luxury”) tax, which penalizes teams for exceeding specific payroll thresholds, large-market teams such as the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers have not spent the way they have in previous winters — robbing players of not only a couple of prime landing spots, but also of leverage to be used against other bidders.

In the last round of collective bargaining negotiations, the union, while pushing for “quality of life” improvements involving the schedule and travel, agreed to luxury tax thresholds with only slight raises — from $189 million in 2014, 2015 and 2016 to $195 million in 2017 and $197 in 2018 — and to new penalties affecting teams’ positions in the amateur draft. It is a stance some players have come to regret.

“I think that we have given the owners … a very good opportunity to take advantage of a system that we have created for ourselves,” Oakland A’s designated hitter Brandon Moss said last week on MLB Network. “I feel like we put more things that are of less value to the forefront.”

There is also the matter of next winter’s star-studded free agent class, headed by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, which is also undoubtedly causing teams to save their money this year — and in the case of the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers and other teams pushing up against the luxury tax threshold of $197 million — to “reset” their tax rates in preparation for next winter’s spending sprees.

What the players’ side might see as collusion — a word the union has not used explicitly, but that agents, including Van Wagenen, have strongly implied — the owners view as smart management. A majority of teams’ front offices are now run by young, Ivy League-educated general managers with analytics backgrounds who share the view that signing veteran free agents, especially those in their 30s, to long-term deals is an inefficient use of resources.

“What’s happening, I think, is that front offices … are valuing players in a more similar fashion,” Toronto Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins said at a public Pitch Talks event last week. “When you’re talking about free agency, you’re talking about older players. I think the industry is realizing that older players have been … overcompensated in the past. That seems to be correcting a bit.”

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