The broken winter: Why baseball must fix free agency ASAP

On this, the 97th day of free agency, four days before the first pitchers and catchers report to spring training, less than six weeks ahead of Major League Baseball opening its regular season, the two best free agents in more than a decade remain unemployed. This is not a black eye for baseball. It is a ruptured spleen, a punctured lung and a lacerated kidney.

What a failure, this offseason. No matter how much Bryce Harper and Manny Machado ultimately sign for, no matter where they end up, this is now more than three months of posturing and feinting, star-shooting and lowballing. This winter was supposed to be all fireworks. Instead, it is a sparkler.

Nobody is happy with this. Fans are rightfully tired of waiting and guessing. Intrigue has evolved into annoyance. Players are clearly dubious about the market -- and the league's intentions. MLB is understandably embarrassed that two of its best players are preparing for an unfortunate uniform swap -- baseball jersey and pants for pajamas -- as they entertain the possibility of missing the beginning of spring training.

This cannot continue -- not unless MLB and the MLB Players Association are so intransigent in their positions that they'll stop feeding coal to their mutually beneficial gravy train simply to make a point. It's why the unusual step of wide-ranging talks in the middle of a collective bargaining agreement, which started Jan. 14 with the league and continued via counterproposal Friday by the players, was so welcome.

The sides, it turns out, can work together, and among the laundry list of items discussed, the ratification of new rules would go a long way toward fortifying a relationship in great need of repair. There will be a 20-second pitch clock in 2019 -- and rather than force commissioner Rob Manfred to unilaterally implement it, as is his right, the union should seek reasonable concessions, such as the expansion of the regular-season roster to 26 players along with the league's request for a contraction of out-of-control September rosters.

Do that, and then tentatively approve for implementation in 2020 the league's wish of a three-batter minimum for pitchers and the union's for all 30 teams to use the designated hitter. Make a deal. Set an example. Thaw the palpable dissent. Then promise to return to the bargaining table soon thereafter and address an issue for which everyone is responsible.

Free agency, once the raison d'etre of the MLBPA, once the fulcrum of MLB's offseason, is broken. And though nobody on either side likes to use that word, the argument is merely semantic. Broken doesn't mean beyond repair. It means that something bad happened, and it has. Where everything goes sideways is the immediacy with which each side blames the other. It's poisonous. MLB says players are being unrealistic. Players believe owners are being tight-fisted. They snipe and blame and lament, and all the while, on the side of the road, sits economic peace, mangled as if struck by an 18-wheeler.

This is not to say bargaining will be easy. It won't. And yet after consecutive winters in which the biggest free agents waited months to sign, it matters less who's responsible and more who's willing to solve the problem. Which is saying a lot, because that responsibility is central to this story. The union failed to see the consequences of the deal it negotiated playing out in such dystopian fashion for players. MLB has fostered an environment in which its defining ideology -- urgency -- has been replaced by a corporatized fealty to efficiency.

Everybody is to blame. Together, MLB and the union are the shepherds of the sport, and they have guided it to a dangerous place, in which the players already are banking marketing money in anticipation of a work stoppage -- one, it should be noted, that is wholly unnecessary considering the current collective bargaining agreement runs for nearly three more years.

It could be nothing more than most posturing, though it reflects the combative position players are preparing to adopt. They're frustrated. They see revenues increasing. They fear salaries, for the second consecutive year, are decreasing. They cringe at the noncompetitive behavior, with union calculations showing that 18 teams are carrying payrolls at least $50 million under the $206 million luxury-tax threshold, 14 teams are $75 million-plus under, and eight teams are more than $100 million under.

The league cannot mandate that any of its 30 teams spend. It understands what every team -- and, truth be told, the smart players -- understands: that after years of an irrational free-agent market in which they paid players in their 30s for performance in their 20s, teams are keen to end that folly. They increasingly rely upon analytical evaluations of players. Those calculations, though not infallible, are rooted in math, logic and history. In a vacuum, the numbers alone make a compelling case.

Free agency, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. So many minuscule elements lead to the ripe market players such as Harper and Machado warrant. Their free agency is confusing, particularly in a system teeming with riches. They want to be in spring training, meeting their new teammates, getting ready for the season. They also don't want to agree to a deal for less than what they believe their market should be.

This is the tricky part. What should their market be? The union has, since its infancy, espoused free-market principles -- a trust that as long as free agency was really free, teams would prioritize winning enough to create bidding wars and drive up prices in that pursuit. The theory is reasonable. It did work for 40 years.

Over the past two winters, it hasn't. And though it may seem reactionary to want levers that juice the market until the sides can make wholesale changes, it would serve a mutually beneficial purpose. Players would be happy. Teams, most of which operate as monetary printing presses, wouldn't risk the consequences of a work stoppage hindering a strong business, particularly when the underpinnings of that strong business are threatened by decreased attendance, decreased national relevance and a dearth of new, young fans. The best long-term solution -- a half-dozen people spanning the league, union, player and agent communities agreed -- is a proper distribution of money, with more going to the youngest and most productive players, like, you know, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who both happen to be 26 years old.

That may be the craziest part of all this winter: Harper and Machado were supposed to be the ones. The winter meetings in Las Vegas were supposed to kick off a festival of activity. There was supposed to be clarity, which would lead to excitement heading into spring training. Well, spring training is nigh, what was supposed to happen didn't and while conversation about Harper and Machado continues to percolate on TV, from the radio and at barstools, it's laced with aggravation and negative connotations -- none of the things you want associated with your product. This free-agent period is near its end, with only 30 or so players left who look like they'll get major league deals and another 70-plus coming to the realization that they'll soon be signing a non-guaranteed minor league deal.

That disintegration of the market led to the biggest news Wednesday: Harper had met the day before in Las Vegas with a cohort of representatives from the San Francisco Giants, a wildly successful, wildly rich baseball team with upward of $500 million in annual revenues. This meeting did not take place on the first or 10th or even 50th day of free agency, because it didn't have to. The Giants, wary of Harper's actual market, figured they could wait. So they waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited nearly three months more until going to Vegas for an awfully high return-on-investment trip. Maybe Harper would fall in love with the idea of the Giants. Maybe he would budge on his price -- even if the only sense of that price is the reported 10-year, $300 million deal Harper turned down from the Washington Nationals in September.

The Giants' tack simply is the norm now. In the NBA and NFL, free agency is a free-for-all. In baseball, it puts the "free" in freezing. And that is good for no one, least of all the fans, who are bound to tune in for Day 98, 99, 100, see no change in status and light a sparkler in honor of a broken winter.