After more than two decades of labor peace, and unbridled prosperity for everyone involved with Major League Baseball, this year’s frozen free-agent market evidently is developing into a cold war between owners and players.
The most threatening salvo was fired Friday by Brodie Van Wagenen, the lead representative for CAA, an agency with more than 100 baseball clients, including Yoenis Cespedes, Noah Syndergaard and Shohei Ohtani. Wagenen did some saber-rattling on Twitter with a statement that raised the age-old specter of collusion among owners and even went as far as to suggest a spring-training strike should this frigid spending climate fail to thaw very soon.
“There is a rising tide among players for radical change,” Wagenen wrote. “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.
“Players don’t receive their paychecks until the second week of April. Fine them? OK, for how much? Sue them? OK, they’ll see you in court two years from now. At what expense?”
The facts suggest something is afoot. Pitchers and catchers report to Arizona and Florida in less than two weeks, yet more than 100 free agents remain unsigned. That group includes J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Yu Darvish and Mike Moustakas. The top earner this offseason has been centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, who received a five-year, $80-million deal from the Brewers, followed by first baseman Carlos Santana (three years, $60 million to the Phillies) and Wade Davis (three years, $52 million to the Rockies).
Union chief Tony Clark said in a statement: “For decades, free agency has been the cornerstone of baseball’s economic system and has benefited Players and the game alike. Each time it has been attacked, Players, their representatives and the Association have united to defend it. That will never change.”
An MLB spokesman said Friday that commissioner Rob Manfred had no official response to Van Wagenen’s battle cry, but he did speak Thursday about the free-agent freeze at the owners meetings in Los Angeles.
“Every market is different,’’ Manfred said during his wrap-up news conference. “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. I think I can honestly suggest occasionally you’re going to have some that are a little different. Not quite as robust.”
MLB has bloomed into a $10-billion industry (in gross revenue), thanks in part to a good working relationship between the owners and Players Association, which has prevented any work stoppages since 1994, when a strike wiped out the World Series. The two sides agreed on a new collective-bargaining agreement last year, but Van Wagenen’s statement is a reminder of just how fragile labor peace can be.
As much as Manfred tried to downplay the glacial pace of free agency this year, Van Wagenen’s suspicions appear reasonable. Every team talks as if they’re waiting for the dominoes to fall, yet few have stepped forward to accelerate the process. Sandy Alderson was correct Thursday in describing the Mets as one of the more active clubs this offseason — signing Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, Jose Reyes and Adrian Gonzalez for a total investment of roughly $56 million. But now the Mets general manager has returned to the same holding pattern as everyone else.
“There’s a reason that the market has been stagnant and it’s not just because clubs aren’t spending money,” Alderson said. “It’s because players aren’t prepared to sign contracts currently given where the marketplace is. I’m sure that will change at some point, one way or the other.”
Maybe so, but the optics are terrible, given that each club also will receive $50 million this year after the $2.5-billion sale of MLBAM to Disney. To Van Wagenen, sitting on all this cash “feels coordinated, rightly or wrongly” — a not-so-subtle hint at collusion. The agent says that team presidents and GMs are “frustrated with the lack of funds to sign the plethora of good players still available, raising further suspicion of institutional influence over the spending.”
Those are fighting words, and Van Wagenen didn’t pull any punches by hinting at a coming storm.
“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.”
That particular time in history is not something anyone involved with Major League Baseball should want to repeat.