WASHINGTON, D.C. - The contentiousness of the offseason is still burning hot.
Following a winter in which many big-name free agents received contracts for fewer years and dollars than expected, Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said Tuesday that "What players saw last offseason was that their free agency rights were under attack, that's what they see."
Some of the top free agents like J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Lance Lynn didn't sign until after spring training had started. The Cardinals signed Greg Holland after the season had already begun. Speaking at the BBWAA All-Star Game luncheon on Tuesday, Clark was clear that the MLBPA remains unhappy with the way the offseason unfolded and made a strong insinuation that there could be tough negotiations ahead after the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021.
"We're very interested in having the opportunity to address those (issues), and if that means 2021, we'll address them then," Clark said. "But what we experienced last offseason was a direct attack on free agency, which has been a bedrock of our economic system, and if that's going to continue then we have some very difficult decisions to make moving forward."
Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke after Clark and again defended the free-market process of free agency.
" 'Direct attack' connotes some sort of purposeful behavior," he said. "The only purposeful behavior that took place in the free-agent market last year was our clubs carefully analyzed the available players and made individual decisions as to what they thought those players were worth. I think if you look back, and we've been watching very carefully, at the end of the year, you'll look at the performance of those players and I'm pretty sure, based on what's already on the books, the clubs made sound decisions as to how those players should be valued. That's how markets operate."
Indeed, Cobb is 2-12 with the Orioles with a 6.41 ERA. Lynn is 7-7 with the Twins with a 5.22 ERA after settling for a one-year contract. Holland, who also took a one-year deal, has a 7.99 ERA. On the other hand, Martinez tops all hitters with 29 home runs (tied with Jose Ramirez) and 80 RBIs and has helped power the Red Sox to the best record in the majors. He signed a five-year, $110 million deal with the team on Feb. 19, five days after spring training began.
Service is another big issue for Clark. Players are eligible for free agency after six seasons in the majors, but teams can hold back a player for a couple weeks in the minors at the start of the season (or some other point in his career) to effectively receive a seventh season of team control. A player's value then decreases if he's a year older when he reaches free agency.
"As much as I offered earlier that there are a number of things we're paying attention to, roster manipulation is at the top, or near the top, of that conversation," Clark said. "In general, watching how teams are moving players in and out and how that affects their service time is something we pay attention to and are concerned about."
Other notes from the Q&A sessions:
Right when it appeared we might getting closer to a resolution on a universal DH rule ... maybe not. Just last month at the owners meetings, Manfred had indicated there was momentum for the DH in both leagues. "I think the dialogue actually probably moved a little bit," he said. On Monday, however: "The most likely action at this point remains the status quo." That splits from Clark, who said the universal DH rule is "gaining momentum" among the players. Pitchers are hitting .113 this season.
Manfred didn't appear especially worried about the decline in attendance, which is down about 2.5 million compared to the same date in 2017 (about 1,700 per game). Alluding to the cold weather in April when there were 35 games played in temperatures less than 40 degrees (compared to two in 2017), he said, "We got ourselves in a hole in April. ... I think it's the weather more than anything else."
Competitive balance -- or what some refer to as "tanking" -- was a topic of discussion, with three teams in the American League headed for 100-plus wins and three others for 100-plus losses. "I'm hopeful that as we talk about this upcoming offseason, that we do have more teams who have a vested interest in accessing the talent that is available," Clark said. Manfred disputed the idea that spending is necessary to win. "I categorically reject the notion that payroll should be the measure that somebody is trying to win in our game today," he said. "I reject that, not because I prefer low payrolls to high payrolls, but because I know the correlation between winning and payroll in baseball is extraordinarily weak." Maybe, although of the top 10 teams in Opening Day payroll, only the Blue Jays have a losing record (and the Nationals are .500). On the other hand, the Brewers, A's and Rays rank in the bottom five and have winning records.
Manfred said the possibility of the AL East loser winning 107 games and being relegated to the wild-card game doesn't mean the postseason format needs changes. "When we went to the one-game wild card, we did it for two fundamental reasons. We wanted to make sure we did everything possible that teams played hard through our 162-game season. We take great pride in that our regular season is meaningful," he said. "The other thing we wanted was to disadvantage that wild-card team. There was this sentiment out there that winning your division should get you some advantage. ... If Mookie Betts and the Boston Red Sox nose the Yankees by a game by the fact that they played hard through all 162, they should get some advantage over those New York Yankees. ... I'm pretty good with how it all looks."
Finally, asked why it seems so much of the public narrative on baseball is on what's wrong with the game, Manfred responded, "The game's place in our culture is probably even more important than five years ago. ... They don't want to see something bad happen to a great American institution."