A day after MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred defended the widespread lack of spending by baseball’s owners on top free agents — and suggested players and their agents should share the blame for the slow-moving market — players’ union chief Tony Clark responded by calling Manfred’s comments “misleading” and referring to the slowdown spanning the past two winters as “a two-year attack on free agency.”
Manfred’s “attempts to shift blame and distract from the main issues,” Clark said Monday in a statement released through the Major League Baseball Players Association, “are unconstructive and misleading at best.”
“Players’ eyes don’t deceive them, nor do fans’,” Clark said. “As players report to spring training and see respected veterans and valued teammates on the sidelines, they are rightfully frustrated by a two-year attack on free agency. . . . We’re operating in an environment in which an increasing number of clubs appear to be making little effort to improve their rosters, compete for a championship or justify the price of a ticket.”
With spring training camps well underway in Florida and Arizona and exhibition games set to begin this week, several notable free agents — including superstar sluggers Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, former Cy Young Award-winning lefty Dallas Keuchel and star closer Craig Kimbrel — remain unsigned. This will be the second consecutive spring in which a handful of star players sign well after camps open.
On Sunday, Manfred took aim at those players as a whole, and specifically at the agents for Harper and Machado, saying, “Everyone seems to approach [the issue] from the standpoint of, ‘Gee, why aren’t the clubs signing players?’
“I think there’s lots and lots of offers out there, and it’s a bilateral process. Players have not accepted those offers yet. . . . Do I wish, if I had my way, that Scott Boras would find a way, or Dan Lozano — whoever, whatever agent — would find a way to make a deal with some club sooner rather than later? Yes, I do. But we negotiated a system that allows the market to operate.”
Manfred also defended owners and general managers who have chosen to stay away from long-term deals with veteran players, saying: “We’ve had a lot of change in the game. People think about players differently. They analyze players differently. They negotiate differently. The process of putting together a competitive team looks a little different. Fans have to get used to that different process and have a little faith in the people who are running their clubs.”
There is ample evidence the acrimony over economics has infected talks between the sides over pace-of-play issues — one of Manfred’s on-field priorities for 2019 and beyond. Although the sides recently exchanged proposals, the union’s pitch included incentives for teams to compete for talent — “substance over seconds,” as Clark’s statement Monday put it.
The heightened tension has labor relations at their lowest point since the players’ strike of 1994-95 and has led some within the game to predict another work stoppage in 2021, when the current labor agreement expires — if not sooner.
“Players have made a sincere attempt to engage with clubs on their proposals to improve pace of play and enhance the game’s appeal to fans,” Clark said. “At the same time, we have presented wide-ranging ideas that value substance over seconds and ensure the best players are on the field every day. We believe these substantive changes are imperative now — not in 2022 or 2025, but in 2019.”