MESA, Ariz. — Cubs union rep Kris Bryant doesn’t know if the “odd” free agent market is a result of collusion, but “it seems like there’s something going on,” he said Monday.
A few hours later, Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts defended his team’s spending limits this winter and denied collusion among owners.
“I have no idea what’s going on with the free-agent market with respect to the [Bryce] Harper and [Manny] Machado situations, but I don’t think anybody’s colluding with anybody,” Ricketts said.
On the day the Cubs held their first full-squad workouts of the spring, a microcosm of the industry-wide labor drama played out under gray clouds and rain showers.
“It just seems like a storm brewing right now,” Bryant said.
After two years of historically slow free-agent markets, players are starting to talk openly about the possibility of the game’s first labor strike in a generation.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” Bryant said.
On Sunday, commissioner Rob Manfred again was dismissive of the sport’s open secret that tanking has become an accepted method of team building. It’s one of several factors contributing to young marquee players such as Harper and Machado remaining unsigned a week into spring training.
Union chief Tony Clark fired back with a statement Monday condemning baseball’s “two-year attack on free agency” and calling Manfred’s comments “unconstructive and misleading at best.”
“Look, I get it,” said Bryant, the 2016 National League MVP who becomes a free agent when the collective-bargaining agreement expires after 2021. “It’s very hard to sympathize with guys making millions of dollars to play a game. And I don’t want that to come off as insensitive, that we’re expecting all of this.
“But at the same time, you see the revenues going up and . . . [teams] not wanting to sign guys that are worthy of being signed. That’s not good for the game. The best players aren’t going to be on the field.”
Said Ricketts: “Revenue was up a small amount in baseball. It’s not like it’s changed dramatically over the last few years.
“I really can’t speak to how other teams spend or don’t spend their money. What I know is we stay up with the top spenders in the game, and that’s all we can do.”
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For the Cubs, Bryant’s pal Harper not only is an ideal fit for what ailed the lineup at times last year but also brings the national profile (and relationship with Bryant) to provide a strong marketing fit on the eve of the Cubs’ broadcast-network launch.
And the baseball department has strong interest, according to multiple sources.
So why didn’t the big-revenue Cubs allocate the money to pursue Harper?
“That’s a pretty easy question to answer: We don’t have any more,” said Ricketts, whose club takes a franchise-record payroll into this season.
“Unfortunately, you can’t have a high-profile free agent every single year.”
What about the marketing value of a player such as Harper in the context of a new TV deal?
“The fact is that we don’t think of it that way,” Ricketts said.
Players across the league are awakening to the reality of deflating player markets compared to the increased revenues — and dramatically rising franchise values.
“You look at just what the Rickettses have done around Wrigley Field,” Bryant said. “They could sell the Cubs right now for a lot of money. They know they can. We certainly appreciate all that they’ve done for us here and around Wrigley. It’s such a cool environment to play in. But at the same time, [the industry’s squeeze on players] has just got to change.”
Bryant heard Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright’s recent prediction that without change a strike is “100 percent” certain, and he seems to agree.
“I feel like the last CBA we kind of got it stuck to us,” Bryant said. “I think what we have going for us is we realize we are the product; we kind of provide the entertainment on the field, and we know that.
“And I think in a couple of years, it’s going to be a dogfight.”
History suggests the owners won’t win a labor war if players are willing to strike. And the Cubs figure to be among the teams with the most to lose in a strike.
“It’s a couple of years away,” Ricketts said. “I’m not thinking about it at the moment. But if there’s issues between the union and the league, we should probably start talking now.”