Major League Baseball’s labor peace appears to be overtaken by gathering clouds.
By the time you have this issue of Jmore — the one with travel imagery on the cover — in your hands, there will be 30 Major League Baseball teams in Florida and Arizona preparing to start the 2018 season.
But at the time I write this, a glacier-like off-season has 22 of CBS Sports’ Top 50 free agents still unsigned. Those are the players we have been hearing about during these past couple of months since teams gathered in Orlando for the winter meetings.
These 22 also will be the ones almost universally under contract when this is in your hand — Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn make up the high end of starters. Greg Holland can close out games as well as anyone, and then offensively there are the likes of J.D. Martinez, Carlos Gomez, Mike Moustakas, Eduardo Nunez, Logan Morrison and Eric Hosmer, who have had to wait and show the patience of Job. They’re all going to have signed by now.
But what of the lesser free agents? Using moviemaking parlance, the bit players? If you use the website mlbtraderumors.com and its free agent tracker, it currently shows a total of 110 unsigned free agents. Those 88 lesser-level free agents have essentially been marginalized.
Of that group, 40 to 50 will be signed to various levels of minor league or one-year contracts by the time this season starts on March 29. But the likes of solid pros J.J. Hardy, John Lackey, Matt Holliday and more may simply be swept aside like yesterday’s news.
And therein lies the rub. A business that did $3.5 billion in revenue in 1994 — the time of the last baseball labor-related work stoppage — is now awash with dollars as baseball revenues during the past quarter-century have risen in excess of $11 billion.
If like me you have been following the ping-pong press releases from MLB, the heads of the MLBPA (players association) Tony Clark, agents Scott Boras and Brodie Van Wagenen, you wouldn’t know that baseball’s financial situation is far brighter than it has ever been.
MLB’s statements lay the blame at the foot of agents for not reading this year’s market correctly. Clark, Boras and Van Wagenen have pointed to the slowdown in far more ominous tones. Clark calls it a race to the bottom in describing how few teams are falling all over themselves to sign a so-so crop of free agents.
Boras, who is an elite agent and controls about six to seven of the top 22, is far more verbose most of the time, but succinctly says this off-season is like a non-competitive cancer in terms of the lack of any sense of urgency in getting these free agents signed.
One person above all the other voices to be listened to is active player Brandon Moss of the Oakland A’s. Moss, appearing on MLB TV, was highly critical of his union and said, “But what we’ve done is we have incentivized owners, we have incentivized teams to say, ’We don’t want to meet that price. It costs us too much to meet that price. It costs us draft picks. It costs us international signing money. We’re going to have to pay a tax if we go over a certain threshold’ that we [the players] set ourselves. … And the only reason those things are there is because we bargained them in.”
Moss goes on to thread the needle as to how players must react over the long-term, and it hearkens back to the ’80s and early ’90s when labor strife nearly killed the golden goose: “You have to be willing to dig your heels in a little bit — fight for the things the guys in the past have fought for. I just hate to see players like me taking advantage of a system that was set up for me, by other players, and not passing it along to the next generation of players.”
So while MLB and its MLBPA have had this labor peace since the strike that cost the sport the ’94 World Series, that peace has been disrupted by the advent of both the commissioner of the sport, Rob Manfred, and his counterpart, the executive director of the MLBPA, Tony Clark, being new in their respective jobs.
Manfred took the inexperienced Clark to the cleaners on this past deal that has three more years left on it. By the looks of it, unless the MLBPA fires Clark for some sort of negligence, if he and Manfred can’t begin to forge a positive working relationship, MLB will be back to the future landing the sport in its worst spot since 1994.