PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — For the first time in a generation, there is major unease — even talk of a potential strike — among major leaguers regarding team owners’ competitive and financial commitments, a conversation that became a focal point at Mets camp Wednesday.
MLB Players Association higher-ups, including executive director Tony Clark, met with Mets players, part of the union’s annual spring training visits. What union officials found at First Data Field was what they’ve found at other camps in recent weeks: mounting frustration about what the players perceive as a system being manipulated increasingly out of their favor.
“We want the best players on the field,” said Michael Conforto, the Mets’ union representative. “Thirty teams, everyone puts their best team out there. It doesn’t matter if it’s a guy toward the end of his career who’s earned his place in the league and has a lot to offer on the field and off the field, or if it’s a young guy who’s proven he’s supposed to be up here.
“I understand the business side of things. Teams are just being efficient. That being said, that respect [for the game] still needs to be there. The best players need to be on the field.”
The collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the MLBPA runs through the 2021 season, but the parties are taking small steps toward trying to ease the tension long before then.
They plan to announce a deal Thursday that includes several noteworthy items: expanding rosters to 26 players with a maximum of 13 pitchers (plus September rosters being capped at 28 players and 14 pitchers) starting in 2020; a single trade deadline on July 31 starting this season; limiting mound visits to five (down from six) per team per game; and turning All-Star voting into a one-off “Election Day.”
For the MLBPA, the highlight of the agreement is a commitment from MLB to discuss — this year — the fundamental sources of the players’ frustrations, including tanking, service-time manipulation and the sudden slowdown of the free-agent market the past two winters.
With Opening Day just two weeks away, the likes of former Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel and perennial All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel, among others, remain unemployed. Superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado didn’t sign until midway through spring training.
Clark said players “at all levels of the service-time spectrum,” from rookies to long-time veterans, are concerned.
Service time in particular has been a hot topic again this spring. With big-time prospects, teams sometimes hold them in the minors for an extra couple of weeks to obtain a seventh year of team control — considered the prudent business move, even if it’s against the rules and means using a sub-optimal major-league team.
The Mets have consistently said they will not play that game with Pete Alonso and that he will make the Opening Day roster if he is one of the best 25 players.
“I hope Pete continues to do what Pete has always done,” Clark said. “And I hope that he has an opportunity to break the squad as a result of the production that he's offered in spring training.”
Conforto inherited the job as Mets union rep last season. When the Mets traded Matt Harvey, the previous representative, last year he suggested to Jerry Blevins — the former Met who is heavily involved in the union — that Conforto take his spot, thus keeping it in the Scott Boras family.
Now, Conforto is making an effort to familiarize himself with MLBPA goings-on, including a recent dinner with union bosses and players who train near the Mets: the Marlins’ Miguel Rojas and the Nationals’ Max Scherzer, Sean Doolittle and Trea Turner.
Players haven’t gone on strike since 1994-95. A potential work stoppage, to be clear, is a ways away. But it is something players are talking about.
“Nobody wants that. MLB doesn’t want that, and we don’t want that either,” Conforto said. “Nobody wants baseball to stop. But no matter what happens, we [the players] are going to stick together.”