WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Even on a day when Commissioner Rob Manfred broke a bit of news — spring training games will soon begin in Florida and Arizona with a 20-second pitch clock, as a possible precursor to implementing the pace-saving devices in the regular season — he could not escape the predominant story line of Major League Baseball’s offseason: the continued unemployment of some of the sport’s highest-profile free agents with the first exhibition games just days away.
A 25-minute question-and-answer session with reporters Sunday, in which Manfred revealed the long-expected plans for the pitch clock, was dominated by economic issues. And Manfred, combative and defensive at times, continued to insist the players were at least as responsible as the teams for the stalemate that has seen superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned some 3½ months since the start of free agency.
“Everyone seems to approach [the standoff] from the standpoint of, ‘Gee, why aren’t the clubs signing players?’” Manfred said. “I think there’s lots and lots of offers out there, and it’s a bilateral process. Players haven’t accepted those offers yet.”
Manfred singled out the agents for Harper and Machado, saying: “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, and I have every confidence that for [top] players . . . the market is going to clear before we get to playing real games.”
“I’m not ascribing blame,” Manfred said. “[But] I do think certain things can be an impediment to making agreements. When you’re pronouncing three years ahead of free agency that a player is going to be a $400 million player — and there’s never been a $400 million player in any sport — that becomes an impediment to the bargaining process. I do believe that.”
Manfred has been targeting the introduction of pitch clocks in 2019 for months now, first proposing them to the players’ union a year ago. He still hopes to reach an agreement with union leaders over their usage in 2019 but said he is prepared to implement them unilaterally in the absence of one.
“We’ll start getting ready for the possibility that we’re going to use the pitch clocks on Opening Day with a kind of phase-in [during spring training] to get everybody — umpires, players — used to it,” Manfred said. “ . . . Whether it’s by agreement or otherwise, the only prudent course for us at this point is to be in position to proceed.”
But with the Grapefruit and Cactus League openers approaching, and with the list of available free agents including a 26-year-old former MVP (Harper), a 26-year-old shortstop considered one of the best all-around players in the game (Machado), a former Cy Young Award-winning left-hander (Dallas Keuchel) and arguably the best closer of this generation (Craig Kimbrel), there was no escaping the daily barrage of angry comments from players and insinuations from union leaders that the owners are infected by a lack of competitive integrity.
“I hate the negativity that surrounds the coverage of the game right now,” Manfred said. “Probably the best antidote to that is to get out there and start playing the game. Because the game is always, always a positive for us. It is that gap during the offseason, when people need things to talk about and write about, that the negativity seems to grow. . . .
“This narrative that our teams aren’t trying is just not supported by the facts. Our teams are trying. Every single one of them wants to win. It may look a little different to outsiders because the game has changed, [and] the way that people think about the game, the way people think about putting a winning team together, has changed. But that doesn’t mean they’re not trying.”
Baseball is in a period of unprecedented labor peace, stretching back to the players’ strike of 1994-95, but with three seasons still to play before the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement at the end of 2021, the tone of labor relations is at its worst in decades. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright was the latest player to suggest his brethren could strike, telling InsideSTL.com, “Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent.”
“I do believe it is unfortunate, [and] it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how you conduct good labor relations to have people running around three years before an agreement expires, before there has been one word of negotiations, arguing there is going to be a strike,” Manfred said Sunday. “. . . It’s not productive in terms of our business. I don’t think it’s good for our fans. I don’t think it’s good for the players. And I know it’s not going to change the outcome of the negotiation ultimately.”