As Major League Baseball teams prepare to open spring training camps with an unprecedented number of free agents still unsigned, the head of the MLB Players Association said clubs are engaged in a "race to the bottom'' that "threatens the integrity of the game.''
Tony Clark, executive director of the players' union, released a statement on Tuesday that reflects the growing tension between the union and MLB over the slow pace of the offseason free agent market.
"Pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona in one week,'' Clark said. "A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs.
"Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season. 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 the game.''
Major League Baseball, in response to Clark's statement, said the large number of elite free agents still unsigned reflects agents' failure to properly assess the state of this winter's market.
"Our Clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans,'' MLB said. "Owners own teams for one reason: they want to win. In Baseball, it has always been true that Clubs go through cyclical, multi-year strategies directed at winning.
"It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned. What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures. It is the responsibility of players' agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics, and the impact of the new Basic Agreement. To lay responsibility on the Clubs for the failure of some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted, and inflammatory.''
If the true goal of @MLB is to capture the interest of fans, having the best product on the field every night should be the priority. If the best players aren't out there, it doesn't matter how long a game is. Our fans deserve to see the best of the best playing for Championships
— Justin Turner (@redturn2) February 6, 2018
It appears that there are 12-15 Teams that have committed to tanking and or not putting the best team they can on the field. That strikes at the heart of the Integrity of the game and is truly unfair to the FANS who LOVE and SUPPORT these organizations! https://t.co/mjD3bolnjv
— Alex Wood (@Awood45) February 6, 2018
Clark's statement comes after some provocative comments by Brodie Van Wagenen, a prominent agent who represents current free agents Jason Vargas, Jon Jay and Andrew Cashner along with Todd Frazier, who agreed to a two-year, $17 million deal with the New York Mets on Monday.
"There is a rising tide among players for radical change," Van Wagenen said in a Twitter post Friday. "A fight is brewing. And it may begin with one, maybe two, and perhaps 1,200 willing to follow. A boycott of spring training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn't change.
"Bottom line, the players are upset. No, they are outraged. Players in the midst of long-term contracts are as frustrated as those still seeking employment. Their voices are getting louder and they are uniting in a way not seen since 1994."
MLB officials have said a spring training boycott would be a violation of the collective bargaining agreement, and Clark released a statement Sunday saying that players will not be taking part in a boycott. "No such threat has been made, nor has the union recommended such a course of action,'' he said.
Amid the rhetoric, free-agent spending has slowed to a level that's ratcheted up the tension. According to ESPN Stats & Information, nine players have received three-year contracts this offseason, compared to 27 a year ago. Clubs have spent $780 million on free agents this winter, compared to $1.45 billion a year ago and $2.53 billion in the 2015-16 offseason. Outfielder Lorenzo Cain's five-year, $80 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers is the most lucrative deal of the offseason. Meanwhile, Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb are among dozens of free agents still looking for work. Of the 166 free agents who began the offseason, 94 are still unsigned.
The circumstances are unusual enough that the MLBPA and its membership have discussed the possibility of a separate free-agent camp for unaffiliated players this spring. During ownership meetings in Beverly Hills, California, last week, commissioner Rob Manfred cited a number of factors contributing to the slow pace of this winter's market.
"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 the game."MLBPA executive director Tony Clark
"Every market is different,'' Manfred told reporters. "There's different players, different quality of players, different GMs, different decisions, a new basic agreement, different agents who had particular prominence in a particular market in terms of who they represent. Those factors, and probably others that I can't tick off the top of my head, have combined to produce a particular market this year.
"Just like there's been some markets where the lid got blown off in terms of player salary growth, occasionally you're going to have some that are not quite as robust.''
Nevertheless, Seattle Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto recently attracted the players' association's with a comment to reporters during the team's pre-spring training media availability on Jan. 25.
"There is a number of teams, let's call it 10 or 12 in baseball, that are tearing down and rebuilding," Dipoto said. "You could argue that you're going to compete with more clubs to try to get the first pick in the draft than you would to win the World Series."
The lack of action has prompted some agents to suggest coordinated activity among clubs to suppress signings. Van Wagenen stopped short of using the word "collusion,' but said the behavior of owners "feels coordinated, rightly or wrongly.''
Agent Scott Boras, another prominent voice, has consistently spoken of provisions in the labor agreement that have contributed to a noncompetitive environment. Boras said the luxury tax, envisioned by commissioner Bud Selig to increase competitive balance, has had the opposite effect by rewarding teams that pocket money rather than spending it on payroll.
"They decided we're going to have the 12 teams-a-tanking, if you will, and therefore you've got a noncompetitive cancer and this is completely opposite of what Commissioner Selig in good faith sought in bargaining," Boras told The Associated Press on Monday.
Clark, who spent 15 years as a major league player before going to work for the union, expressed concerns about the message being sent to fans with so many high-quality players still unsigned.
"As we sit here on Feb. 6, having a historic number of guys available speaks to the concerns about competition on the field,'' Clark said. "Historically there have been teams that rebuild -- one or two here and there. You have an appreciation for a team looking to reposition itself. In a climate where a significant number of teams are taking that position, it calls into question what fans are supporting and what players themselves are competing against.
"Every player wants to play against the best. That's just how we're wired. To the extent that we have a historic number of players still on the market, it calls into question what exactly as an industry we're trying to accomplish against the backdrop of competitive balance -- which is the underlying theme of our collectively bargained agreement.''