Rob Manfred knows what labor strife looks like. As an outside counsel to Major League Baseball during the 1994-95 players’ strike, he saw baseball at its self-destructive worst. As MLB’s full-time executive vice president, he negotiated the league’s first drug-testing policy and the collective bargaining agreements of 2002, 2006 and 2011.
If baseball’s labor relations are truly at a 25-year nadir, as some have claimed this offseason, perhaps no one is more qualified to address that assertion than Manfred, who, at age 60, is entering his fifth year as commissioner.
He has seen the predictions of doom, read the reports of union members voting already to hold back licensing payments as a potential strike fund and noted the words of one agent who told the Athletic recently that the sides may be “locking arms and walking off the cliff together” — and cautions everyone to calm down.
“Labor relations are bound to have ups and downs,” Manfred said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “But agents talking about going off cliffs and union leaders talking about strike preparations three years [before the expiration of a CBA], when we haven’t had meaningful dialogue, [is not productive]. More is being made out of this than there needs to be.”
With 2019 spring training camps set to open across Arizona and Florida next week, this should be a time of celebration and optimism, with odes to the sounds of baseballs popping into gloves and the first glimpses of the winter’s big acquisitions in their new uniforms.
Instead, the sport is obsessed with its unfinished business — with all the things that haven’t happened. Chiefly, dozens of free agents remain unsigned across a stagnant marketplace, including the two biggest prizes of the winter: 26-year-old superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Other players who remain unsigned include one of the game’s premier closers, Craig Kimbrel; the 2015 American League Cy Young winner, lefty Dallas Keuchel; and Marwin Gonzalez, the game’s consummate super-utility man.
The slow pace of the free agent market, combined with a perceived lack of urgency on the part of mid- and large-market teams to improve their rosters, has had union leaders questioning some owners’ commitment to winning. A “historic period of inactivity” and an “unwillingness to compete,” as Bruce Meyer, the players association’s chief lawyer put it last month. Many veteran players have taken increasingly confrontational stances in comments to the media and on Twitter.
“Obviously, we don’t like a situation where there is dissatisfaction among the players,” Manfred said. “And we have been clear with the MLBPA, going back approaching a year — it was spring training last year that we said we were prepared to talk to them about whatever issues they think are out there. And we haven’t had a lot of dialogue.”
Until late January, Manfred could have said there had been no dialogue. But in recent days, the union made a significant counterproposal to some of Manfred’s recently proposed rule changes — a development that, on its own, represented significant progress toward thawing a relationship that had grown frosty between the league and the union.
Some of the proposals being discussed — including the adoption of the designated hitter in the National League and a rule requiring pitchers to face a minimum of three batters in most cases — would be among the most drastic changes to the game in years.
Equally important, the union’s counterproposal addressed some of its concerns about “competitive integrity,” providing enticements for teams to spend money in an effort to compete and penalizing teams that lose 90-plus games in consecutive seasons with a drop in draft position and a reduction in international-bonus funds.
Manfred would not discuss specific proposals, but from where he sits, baseball’s economic model is far from the “broken” system some on the union’s side would make it out to be. There has been a fundamental shift in the way front offices, increasingly run by general managers with backgrounds in analytics, math or business, regard free agents — with teams generally shying away from long-term, high-risk deals with older players — but league officials argue that shift has resulted in more money going to younger players who have yet to reach free agency.
As an example, they point to the $26 million Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado will earn this year in his final season before free agency — a record-setting salary for an arbitration-eligible player.
“If the union is dissatisfied with the way money is distributed between young players and older players, they have to come forward and tell us what kind of distribution it wants and what mechanism it wants to implement to accomplish that,” Manfred said. “Our players get more high-valued, guaranteed contracts than players in any other sport. And the fact that it's flowing a little bit differently in terms of which players get it — you've got to think carefully before you abandon what we have today. It's worked pretty well."
Baseball’s annual revenue, which sat at $7.86 billion the year before Manfred took over from Bud Selig as commissioner, grew for a 16th straight year to $10.3 billion in 2018, according to Forbes. At the same time, attendance in 2018 declined for a third straight season, dropping below 70 million overall for the first time since 2003.
While Manfred has shrugged off the attendance drop as being largely the result of unusually bad weather in the eastern half of the United States last April, many of his proposed rule changes being discussed with the union — a 20-second pitch clock, a reduction on mound visits per game, a three-batter minimum for new pitchers — can be seen as an effort to modernize and speed up the game in an effort to draw in younger fans. The Sports Business Journal reported in 2016 that the average age of MLB fans was 57 years old, the highest of any major U.S. sport by far and an increase of four years over 2006 data.
With talks ongoing between the league and the union, and with so many top free agents still to sign, the game’s economic issues are all but certain to bleed over into spring training — a time when, not so long ago, those off-field stories receded and gave way to a focus on the teams, the players and the game.
It appears this is the new normal for baseball. A year ago, the rhythms of spring were interrupted by the signings of top free agents Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, J.D. Martinez and Jake Arrieta, all of whom joined their new teams between mid-February and early March. A similar dynamic will jolt camps this spring, when Harper, Machado, Kimbrel, Keuchel and Gonzalez all eventually sign.
According to numbers provided by MLB, 52 percent of free agents were still unsigned through Tuesday, which is still better than a year ago, when 67 percent were unsigned on the same date, and roughly in line with the 2015-16 offseason, when the figure was 45 percent.
In addition, Dan Halem, MLB’s deputy commissioner and chief legal officer, pointed out that seven of the 10 highest-ranked free agents still unsigned are represented by the same agent — Scott Boras — who took Hosmer, Martinez and Arrieta deep into the spring a year ago.
“It takes two parties to negotiate a contract,” Halem said, “and the fact is, seven of the top 10 are negotiated by the same agent, who likes to take his time.”
By Opening Day, it’s safe to assume, Harper will be on some team’s roster and Machado will be on that of — presumably — another team, as will Keuchel, Kimbrel, Gonzalez and many (but not all) of the others. The focus will eventually return to the game on the field, but even that is no respite from the scrutiny, as the sport attempts to make itself sleeker, quicker and more appealing for a modern audience.
And hovering over it all is the specter of Dec. 1, 2021, when the current labor agreement expires. The nearly 34 months between now and then afford plenty of time for the league and union to find common ground on a solution but also plenty of time for acrimony to build in its absence.
“My view is that if people focus on what the [economic] system really does and what adjustments can realistically be made given the fundamental change in the way [front offices] are thinking about the game, we’ll be fine,” Manfred said. “And most importantly, get in a room and talk about it.”