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Collusion or common sense? Either way, baseball may be headed toward labor war

Tony Clark, left, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, shakes hands with free agent player Chris Colabello before an exhibition baseball game against JR East, a Japanese amateur team.
Tony Clark, left, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, shakes hands with free agent player Chris Colabello before an exhibition baseball game against JR East, a Japanese amateur team. (Chris O'meara/AP)

Thomas Boswell

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — The foundations of Major League Baseball’s long, wonderful period of peace are starting to shake.

Baseball is undergoing the first stage of a dramatic paradigm shift in the way players are valued in the free agent market as well as a tilt in MLB’s balance of power toward owners and away from the powerful players’ union.

How the game copes with these tectonic forces between now and the expiration of the current collective bargain agreement after the 2021 season will profoundly impact the health, wealth and popularity of the sport for a generation.

The game has what seems like an eternity — four seasons — to adjust to changing market dynamics and extend what will be a 27-year era of labor peace. But conditions are changing so fast that players are disoriented and disturbed, while owners click their heels with their sport awash in new revenue streams.

Nationals spring training begins

Nationals manager Dave Martinez watches pitchers run sprints during a voluntary workout for the team the day before mandatory practice for pitchers and catchers begins at the team training facility in West Palm Beach. (John McDonnell)

The stunning symbol of this confluence of factors is the current spring training camp, run by the union, for players who have no job even though the exhibition season is underway. Dozens of free agents remain unsigned. A few are stars, but many are vets who are in shock they have not had multimillion-dollar offers.

A team of these “outcasts” would include some players who just don’t want to sign fat contracts because they aren’t fat enough but also many who don’t even have an invitation to come to a spring training camp to try to make a team.

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Such a hypothetical club could have Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, John Lackey and Ricky Nolasco in its rotation, National League saves leader Greg Holland as its closer and a lineup with Carlos Gonzalez, Jon Jay and Jose Bautista in its outfield, an infield of Matt Holliday, Neil Walker, J.J. Hardy and Mike Moustakas, as well as Jonathan Lucroy at catcher with Adam Lind, Jayson Werth and Mark Reynolds (30 homers) on its bench. These guys have won batting, home run and RBI titles or helped take teams to World Series. Not one has a deal? Really?

Three weeks ago, MLB Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark said, “A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenue and franchise values are at record highs. . . . 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 our game.”

On Tuesday, the next shoe dropped as word got out that the MLBPA filed a grievance against MLB accusing the Athletics, Marlins, Pirates and Rays of failing to abide by the rules on how they spend their revenue-sharing money.

Whether that is true or not, players will have to recognize that other trends also are undermining their salary leverage.

In recent years, analytics-driven teams have come to value young controllable talent more than ever while avoiding over-30 vets, especially on long contracts. And many teams now shy from signing top free agents, those who have rejected qualifying offers, because of the steep cost in compensation that they must pay.

Adding to this youth-over-age — and cheap-over-expensive — trend is MLB’s confidence that its drug testing for performance-enhancing drugs and amphetamines is effective. That means older players are even less likely to be able to extend their careers through chemistry.

As a result, MLB’s basic model for paying players — underpaying players in their prime years in their 20s while spurning all but the best star players in their 30s — soon may be outdated and so unbalanced that the sport may have to reinvent the way it does business. The last such upheaval, from the arrival of the first free agent in 1976 through the strike that canceled the 1994 World Series, produced almost 20 years of labor war. I covered it all. It was hellish.

“Guys like Adam Lind deserve to be on a big league team,” the Nationals’ Ryan Zimmerman said. “What Adam did last year (.875 on-base-plus-slugging percentage), you’re telling me every team’s good? He’s not needed? That’s where I get upset.”

In the past several weeks, three major signings — Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish and J.D. Martinez for nearly $400 million combined — have shown that the market for stars, while crimped, is hardly crashing. Perhaps this offseason is just a recalibration or a financial deep breath by teams that want to save money for next winter’s far more impressive cast of free agents, led by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

But plenty of players are mad. They exchange stories, such as an all-star who got three lowball offers from three tail-end teams, then weeks of silence from the other 27 teams. Softening him up to sign for half of his market price a year ago?

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So far, calm players such as the Nationals’ Sean Doolittle are trying to see both sides and figure out where common ground can be found for “the long-term serious conversation that we need to start having — now.

“But it is concerning. I don’t know enough about the moving parts behind the scenes to come right out and call it collusion, because that’s a really serious charge,” said Doolittle, aware that 30 years ago owners were fined $280 million for three straight winters of coordinated salary suppression. “But the later you get in this process — and we’re now in spring training — it does make you wonder what’s going on. Because you hope that’s not the case, right?”

Baseball’s labor-war death-wish era need not be repeated. But take heed. Now is the time for measured evaluation, not a rush to condemn either side. Positions, once taken publicly, are hard to walk back.

Players need to understand that the realities of their situation have changed, not through devious actions but by evolution in our understanding of the sport. Analytics and PED testing are both advances for baseball. But they have damaged the perceived value of older players while boosting the status of young ones.

Nonetheless, players, agents and the union are wise to be skeptical. This month, club officials have sworn to me on their grandmothers’ graves that they aren’t colluding. They all just got analytical at the same time and came to similar evaluations of almost every player’s worth. What a convenient coincidence.

Luckily, baseball has four years to work through this brier patch.

“We’re definitely in a transition period. Because of analytics, the days when 30-year-olds get seven-year deals aren’t going to happen very much anymore,” Zimmerman said. “I don’t blame teams for that. It’s smart. But if owners are going to put so much value into the first part of people’s careers, then [future] players should be compensated at the beginning of their career more than they are now.

“Most guys don’t get to the big leagues until they are 24, 25. I’m not a genius, but 24-25, plus six years [until free agency], is 30 or 31. Look around at how many 30-, 31-year-olds are basically just getting pushed out of the game right now. So the system, I don’t want to say it’s outdated, but . . .”

But it is. Many players fear they won’t get their fair share of MLB’s huge revenue at the beginning or the end of their careers. How do you fix that?

“I don’t even know where to start that discussion,” Zimmerman said. “You’d be switching the entire thing. That’s above my pay grade.”

Rimshot, irony. But someone better figure it out.

Last time MLB had to create a new system, it was a 30-year brawl. Scars still show. Bud Selig is in the Hall of Fame; Marvin Miller isn’t.

Four years seems like plenty of time to avoid a disaster. I promise, it will fly past.