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Union chief Tony Clark rebuts commissioner Rob Manfred on unsigned free agents

He wrote in an email that Rob Manfred's words are "unconstructive" and "misleading at best."

Tony Clark, head of the MLB Players Association,

Tony Clark, head of the MLB Players Association, stands on the field before the All-Star Futures baseball game in Miami on July 9, 2017. Photo Credit: AP/Lynne Sladky

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Commissioner Rob Manfred’s brushback pitch to the Players Association, as part of his annual spring training media session, was met with return fire Monday from union chief Tony Clark.

After Manfred enthusiastically punched holes in what he said was a wrongful narrative regarding unsigned free agents and tanking, Clark delivered a rebuttal Monday with an email statement that labeled the commissioner’s words as “unconstructive” and “misleading at best.”

“As Players report to spring training and see respected veterans and valued teammates on the sidelines, they are rightfully frustrated by a two-year attack on free agency,” Clark said in the statement. “Players commit to compete every pitch of every at-bat, and every inning of every game. Yet we’re operating in an environment in which an increasing number of clubs appear to be making little effort to improve their rosters, compete for a championship or justify the price of a ticket.”

Manfred said the opposite Sunday, dismissing the idea that teams aren’t trying to win and repeating a familiar refrain of higher payrolls not necessarily equating to success on the field.

The commissioner also faulted the agents for pumping up unrealistic expectations for their clients, such as hyping them as $400-million players long before they reach the open market. Of course, he was indirectly referring to Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, who remained unsigned Monday.

“I think it’s important to remember that [the union] has always wanted a market-based system,” Manfred said. “And markets change, particularly when the institution around those markets change. We’ve had a lot of change in the game — people think about players differently, they analyze players differently, they negotiate differently.

“Everybody seems to approach this issue from the perspective of ‘gee, why aren’t the clubs signing players?’ There’s lots and lots of offers out there, and it’s a bilateral process. Players haven’t accepted those offers yet. That’s how a market works.”

In the midst of this free-agent cold war, Manfred also said Sunday night that MLB will push forward with a 20-second pitch clock for spring training games in preparation for using it on Opening Day of the regular season. The union has resisted this pace-of-play measure, but Manfred, in accordance with the CBA,  is free to implement it unilaterally because the rule was proposed a year ago. That doesn’t sit well with Clark, either.

“Players have made a sincere attempt to engage with clubs on their proposals to improve pace of play and enhance the game’s appeal to fans,” Clark said. “At the same time, we have presented wide-ranging ideas that value substance over seconds and ensure the best Players are on the field every day. We believe these substantive changes are imperative now — not in 2022 or 2025, but in 2019.

“We look forward to continuing to engage with MLB on changes that address substantive issues — to the benefit of fans, Players, the 30 clubs and the game of baseball as a whole.”

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