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Rob Manfred doesn't seem concerned about free-agent issue

Rob Manfred, commissioner of Major League Baseball, speaks

Rob Manfred, commissioner of Major League Baseball, speaks during a news conference at owners meetings Friday, Feb. 8, 2019, in Orlando, Fla.  Credit: AP/John Raoux

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Looking to blame someone for the prolonged free-agent limbo of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado? Commissioner Rob Manfred, though reluctant to point fingers, did have a theory Sunday night during his annual spring training news conference.

“I do think that certain things can be an impediment to making agreements,” Manfred said. “When you pronounce three years ahead of somebody’s free agency that a player is going to be a $400-million player, and there’s never been a $400-million player in any sport — put baseball to one side — that becomes an impediment to the bargaining process, I do believe that.

“But it takes two sides to make an agreement. And I do believe that with respect to these players, the clubs and the agents that represent the players will find a way to make a deal.”

Maybe so, but Manfred didn’t sound concerned in the least about the sluggish pace of baseball’s free agency for the second straight year, nor does the commissioner think baseball’s economic system is broken, as many players are suggesting.

Plenty have expressed surprise, and in some cases anger, that teams seem to be manipulating the market and perhaps even colluding to keep salaries down. With spring training already underway, a number of veteran free agents remain unemployed.

“I’m someone who can speak on how much I have learned from these individuals, and I know how important they are to the game of baseball,” Blue Jays righthander Marcus Stroman said Sunday at the team's complex in Dunedin, Florida. “So to see these guys sitting at home and not have jobs, that’s absolute crazy.”

Manfred came to the podium prepared Sunday night, knowing full well that he’d face a barrage of questions on that very topic during his nearly 30-minute session. As for any acrimony between himself and the Players Association, Manfred said he had a cordial sit-down with union chief Tony Clark just last week. He downplayed the recent saber-rattling by the players, suggesting it is counterproductive, with the current CBA not set to expire until after the 2021 season.

 “I do believe it is unfortunate,” Manfred said. “It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding on how you conduct good labor relations, to have people running around three years before an agreement expires, before there has been one word of negotiation, arguing there is going to be a strike. I actually have a degree in labor relations, and we never learned that tactic.

“It is not productive in terms of our business. I don’t think it’s good for our fans, and I don’t think it’s good for the players, and I know it’s not going to change the outcome of our negotiations.”

Manfred is moving forward, however, with MLB’s pace-of-play initiative of utilizing a 20-second pitch clock, which will start to be used when spring training games begin later this week. Because the proposal was introduced a year ago, the commissioner no longer needs the union’s approval to implement the pitch clock for the regular season, but Manfred hopes he can negotiate an agreement from Clark’s side for the new rule. For now, this will be a test run for the planned implementation on Opening Day.

“The only prudent course at this point is to be in a position to proceed,” Manfred said. “We had to get it going.”

For now, that’s the only rule change on tap, and given the current state of labor relations, it probably won’t be a very smooth process to get much else done in the near future.

Manfred vehemently denied the union’s assertion that too many teams are tanking — i.e., not spending enough to win — and said the way clubs operate now has resulted in different economic trends.

“From a fan’s perspective, it’s important to look at what the organization is doing in terms of its effort to be competitive on the field,” Manfred said. “I don’t think it’s as easy as it used to be to understand how people are putting their teams together in an effort to be competitive. The process of putting together a competitive team looks a little different. Fans have to get used to that different process and have a little faith in the people that are running their clubs.”

As for the possibility of someday changing the sport’s salary structure, an idea whose time apparently is on the very near horizon, Manfred said that may be a sizable hurdle to clear in the coming years.

“It’s kind of about the money at the end of the day,” he said. “I do think the way people think about the game, and the way they analyze the game, that’s not going away. And the challenge is going to be, can you alter the system in the way that produces the result that is more acceptable to the players? We don’t even know what that result is — what they’re looking to achieve.”


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