NEW YORK — Players’ union head Tony Clark claims the number of rebuilding teams and unsigned free agents in a historically slow market threatens the sport’s integrity, an assertion immediately rejected by Major League Baseball.
In a statement and a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Clark voiced the frustration of the 100-plus free agents who remain unsigned with the start of spring training one week away.
“A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs,” he said in a statement, eight days before the first formal workouts. “Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season. This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom. This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”
Just 61 of 166 players who exercised their free agency rights last November had announced agreements as of Tuesday, down from 99 of 158 at a similar time last year. J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are among the stars still seeking a place to play.
While the players’ association has shown no interest in agent Brodie Van Wagenen’s suggestion that players consider boycotting spring training, the union could announce this week that it will open a training camp for free agents. It would be similar to the one that operated after the 7 ½-month strike in 1994-95.
Scott Boras, the sport’s most well-known agent, has called the increased number of rebuilding teams a “noncompetitive cancer.”
“We’re finding ourselves asking questions that we never thought we would have to ask before, which is are there concerns about the competitive integrity of the game itself?” Clark told the AP. “When it turns to fans being able to see or wanting to see the best 750 players and those 750-plus players wanting to play against the best players, when that becomes part of the conversation it’s just not beneficial to anybody.”
MLB attributed the amount of unsigned players to a misreading of the marketplace. Just two free agents have agreed to a deal worth $50 million or more: outfielder Lorenzo Cain’s $80 million, five-year deal with Milwaukee and first baseman Carlos Santana’s $60 million, three-year contract with Philadelphia. In addition, outfielder Justin Upton reached a $106 million, five-year contract to stay with the Los Angeles Angels rather than become a free agent.
“Our clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement. “Owners own teams for one reason: They want to win. In baseball, it has always been true that clubs go through cyclical, multiyear strategies directed at winning.”
Many teams have concluded there are just two successful strategies: all-in or all-out. Either add veterans around a core group or jettison pricey players and start over.
That was reinforced when Chicago Cubs won the 2016 World Series four years after losing 101 games and Houston took last year’s title four years after losing 111.
“It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned,” MLB added. “What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures. It is the responsibility of player’s agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free-agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics and the impact of the new Basic Agreement. To lay responsibility on the clubs for the failure of some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted, and inflammatory.”
Boras maintains the collective bargaining agreement’s toughened luxury tax has combined with restraints on signing bonuses for amateur draft picks to cause teams to value young players even more than previously. jettison veterans and rebuild in an attempt to form a young core that can compete in future years. Boras, who represents Martinez, Arrieta, Hosmer and Moustakas, said marketplace dynamics were transformed by the increase in rebuilding teams under the five-year labor contract agreed to in November 2016.
“There is a number of teams, let’s call it 10 or 12 in baseball, that are tearing down and rebuilding,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto said last month. “You could argue that you’re going to compete with more clubs to try to get the first pick in the draft than you would to win the World Series.”
Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood went further, tweeting: “It appears that there are 12-15 teams that have committed to tanking and or not putting the best team they can on the field.”
Colorado catcher Chris Iannetta suggested teams’ behavior be subject to the misconduct provision of Major League Rule 21, which makes players and any person connected with a team subject to a lifetime ban if the person shall “intentionally fail to give his best efforts towards the winning of any such baseball game.”
“Is it a double standard to not put forth your best effort as an organization?” Iannetta tweeted.
For Clark, Dipoto’s statement was an indictment of baseball’s current state.
“OK, well, wait a minute, if that is the M.O. (modus operandi) now, then what are we really doing here?” Clark told the AP. “The entire backdrop of the CBA itself is grounded in competitive balance. That has been the focal point.”
With players angered over the market, they have refused to accept any of MLB’s proposals to speed pace of play, such as a pitch clock or limits on mound visits.
“This is where our focus is right now,” Clark said. “It affects a lot of people and a lot of places and a lot of cities and a lot of teams.”