ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — As dozens of free agents remain without jobs and even employed players voice their unhappiness with the historically depressed market, commissioner Rob Manfred showed little concern Thursday when asked about the rumbling discontent throughout baseball.
“I think that players will reach agreements with clubs,” Manfred said during a news conference at Tropicana Field. “That’s sort of the natural course of things. Drawing lines in the sand based on a perception that your market value is something different than what the market is telling you your value is, that doesn’t make a lot of sense.
“It is a fact that markets dictate value. Values are not dictated by big, thick three-ring binders and rhetoric about who’s better than whom.”
In the past week, the Cubs signed Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126-million contract, suggesting that the market’s pulse might quicken. But with exhibition games scheduled to begin next Friday, many of the biggest names — J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas — remain available.
That has not gone unnoticed by their colleagues. CC Sabathia returned to the Yankees on a one-year, $10-million deal, and when asked Thursday how he would feel to be in Arrieta’s shoes right now, he winced.
“I’d be panicking,” he said.
Manfred, however, doesn’t seem at all worried. He already has had some of the sport’s most powerful agents float the idea of collusion, but he maintains that “markets operate differently year to year” and shrugged off those accusations.
“I can tell you one thing for certain,” Manfred said. “The clubs have conducted themselves in a manner that’s completely consistent with the agreement we made with the MLBPA.”
Despite the growing acrimony between the two sides, there has been uninterrupted labor peace for more than two decades, and a new collective-bargaining agreement was put in place a year ago. So the MLBPA is in a bit of a bind, stuck with a free-agent system that is in need of an upgrade, as well as pace-of-play rules that Manfred is ready to forcefully implement if the union doesn’t go along with them.
A chief complaint leveled by the union, and voiced by Scott Boras and other agents, is that many teams are sitting out free agency rather than spending to compete. A prime example is the Derek Jeter-run Marlins, a franchise that has traded away its top players in slashing payroll, but Manfred refused to concede that point.
“Our business has always been cyclical,” he said. “Clubs go through the process of developing young players, bring them along as a group, as a team. That’s been the tradition in baseball for years and years. I believe all our teams want to win. That’s why owners own clubs. It’s about winning, and I think that our fans understand that the timing for individual clubs in a particular year may vary.”
Or teams are just run differently, with more scrutiny on the economics of the game and a preference for developing homegrown talent at a lower cost. Sabathia believes this is not merely a fluctuation but a trend that needs to eventually be addressed.
“When I was a free agent, you got paid off of what you did,” Sabathia said. “ Now guys are getting paid off what they can do throughout the contract. GMs are getting younger and smarter and want to get more value out of the player.”
Manfred intends to implement his pace-of-play rules, with or without the union’s consent, before the start of exhibition games. The commissioner has trumpeted a pitch clock, along with targeting the breaks between innings and limiting mound visits.
“There are going to be rule changes with respect to pace of play for the 2018 season,’’ Manfred said. “I don’t see anything about those pace-of-play discussions that should be a labor relations negative over the long haul.”