PHOENIX — They start arriving this week in the desert and Florida, with more than a thousand players getting ready for six weeks of spring training in 30 major-league camps, but this spring could be the oddest in two decades.
The attention won’t necessarily be on teams trying to unseat the World Series champion Houston Astros, Japanese sensation Shohei Ohtani or even Yankees teammates Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge, but rather the unemployment line in major-league baseball.
Baseball’s most intriguing camp will be its 31st — the one in Bradenton, Florida, where former Astros manager Bo Porter will conduct workouts for the unemployed masses — open to more than 80 unemployed ballplayers, keeping them in shape if someone does call.
“I can’t believe this is happening,’’ says veteran agent Joshua Kusnick. “This is not like anything we’ve gone through in our lives, at least since the [1994-1995] labor stoppage. I haven’t had a single conversation with a front office this entire winter about player skills or stats or ability. Only money.
“I’m supposed to believe that every single team in the same offseason organically all decide that the money should be the same for every player for the same amount of years. How did everyone come to the same decision on their own?
“Players that should be getting major-league deals are getting minor-league deals. Guys that should be getting minor-league deals aren’t getting any calls. I’m not talking about life-changing contracts.
“Just a job.”
And now Kusnick will find himself traveling Wednesday to Bradenton, where he’ll have two players, reliever Donovan Hand and infielder Nolan Reimold, in the union camp. Another client, reliever Jeremy Jeffress, signed before he could be non-tendered in December, mortified to enter this free-agent market.
Others not so fortunate will report to the union’s job showcase or to big-league camps on minor-league deals knowing their chances of making the ballclub could be upended at any time by a late signing.
“I had one guy take a minor-league deal,” says Kusnick, “and was told, ‘Either take this or you’ll be sitting out all spring.’ Had I known this camp was going to happen, he would have gone here instead.
“I just wish it didn’t have to be like this. Not one player wants to be there. Not one.’’
Porter, whose coaching staff will feature Hall of Famer Dave Winfield, former All-Stars Chris Chambliss, Tom Gordon and Brian Jordan and former executive Reid Nichols, has no idea how many players will show up Wednesday morning at the IMG Academy. He doesn’t even know how long it will last. The doors will stay open at least until March 4, says Tony Clark, executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, but if necessary, they could leave the facility open all spring.
“I did not think this was going to be a possibility,’’ Porter said, “but as the offseason went on, and you saw an unprecedented number of MLB free agents, we thought it was necessary.
“I look at it as win, win, for everybody as it relates to this dynamic. The players that end up coming to our camp, they are going to be preparing for the championship season just as if they were in spring training with one of the 30 teams.”
Yet, as long as the union camp stays around, it is an embarrassment to the entire baseball industry.
In a sport that generates at least $11 billion in annual revenue, how in the world can there still be more than 80 unemployed players, including Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, World Series hero Eric Hosmer, National League saves leader Greg Holland or slugger J.D. Martinez?
The easy villain would be high-powered agent Scott Boras, who represents all four players among his stable of 15 unsigned free agents, but he says he simply is seeking what his players deserve.
Arrieta, after all, could have had a six-year deal from the Cubs, too, but he was seeking at least $26.5 million a year annual salary, which would have pushed the deal to at least $159 million. The Cubs instead signed Yu Darvish to a six-year, $126 million contract.
Hosmer, 28, has two seven-year contract offers in the $140 million neighborhood from the Kansas City Royals and San Diego Padres, but he wants at least an eight-year deal.
In a sport in which 24 teams are generating at least $150 million more in revenue than player salaries, according to Boras’ analysts, payrolls are dramatically shrinking. Team payrolls, which were $4.1 billion on opening day last season, are expected to decrease for the first time since 2004. Team payrolls have since increased by about 6 percent annually, according to FanGraphs.
“If the game was losing money, then the players would expect to lose money, too,’’ Porter says, “but that’s not happening. There’s so much wealth in the game, but the players’ salaries are decreasing.
“The players are the prized commodities here. The game doesn’t go on without the players.’’
Yet, while Boras says that “teams are intentionally murdering seasons and fans are dying with it,’’ and Clark says it’s a “race to the bottom,’’ and agents are hinting at collusion, the union is struggling to garner fan sympathy.
It is as if the players are the bad guys for being unsigned, and even if the offers are grossly undervalued, they should be grateful for being paid to play the sport.
“The fans have turned against labor,’’ Kusnick says, “and it reminds me so much of the rhetoric in politics.
“Hopefully, this [free-agent] camp will at least draw some awareness what’s really happening out there.’’
And in the meantime, with four more seasons of hostility and resentment before the next labor agreement comes up?
“I don’t know will happen,’’ Kusnick says, “but I’m currently saving every penny I get, and I’m advising my clients to do the exact same thing.’’
Welcome to spring training.
Follow me on Twitter @BNightengale.