MESA, Ariz. — Collusion?
The Cubs pitcher who signed what was then the biggest contract in franchise history barely three years ago doesn’t go that far.
But left-hander Jon Lester called the free-agent market this winter ‘‘alarming’’ and used words such as ‘‘crazy’’ and ‘‘ridiculous’’ to describe the slow crawl that has left most of the biggest-name players still unsigned the week spring training opened across Florida and Arizona.
‘‘I don’t know behind closed doors what’s being said, what’s not being said,’’ Lester said during his first conversation with media Friday. ‘‘It’s just alarming. We’re not talking about middle relievers with 5 ERAs; we’re talking about big guys.’’
The six-year, $126 million deal the Cubs closed with right-hander Yu Darvish a week ago was only the second free-agent contract of the winter of more than three years and represented the highest annual value. Outfielder Lorenzo Cain signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Brewers last month.
Among those still available are former Cubs right-hander Jake Arrieta, reigning National League saves leader Greg Holland and outfielder J.D. Martinez, the top projected hitter on the market when the offseason began.
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‘‘There’s no reason why Jake Arrieta or J.D. Martinez or any of these guys should have to sign a one-year deal; that’s ridiculous,’’ Lester said. “There’s too much money in the game. The money’s going up. Our game’s not suffering at all. There’s money to be spent, and for whatever reason it’s not being spent.
‘‘It’s just alarming that we have so many guys that don’t have jobs. . . . I don’t understand it. Selfishly, I’m glad I’m not in that situation. But for those guys, it’s got to be hard.’’
If any player should know how flush with cash the game has been in recent years, it’s Lester, who was hotly pursued by at least four teams before signing a six-year, $155 million deal with the Cubs. The Giants offered even more guaranteed money ($168 million over seven years).
Then a few weeks after Lester’s big deal, right-hander Max Scherzer signed a then-record seven-year, $210 million contract with the Nationals. A year later, left-hander David Price broke that record with a seven-year, $217 million deal to pitch for the Red Sox.
Is this really all about teams staying flexible for the top talents in the market next year, such as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado? Is it about teams making similar decisions, independently but simultaneously, either to commit to below-luxury-tax payroll thresholds (Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, etc.) or essentially drop out of the market altogether because they’re rebuilding (White Sox, Marlins, Pirates, etc.)?
Or is it possible even part of the reason for the slowest free-agent market in history is being caused by collusive actions by the teams?
‘‘There’s nothing to it,’’ Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts said last month when asked about collusion in the market.
But this much is certain: When you include the revenues from Major League Baseball’s recent $1.6 billion sale to Disney of a stake in its digital and streaming operation, MLB has grown to a $12 billion industry, according to insiders. That’s up from $8 billion (according to Forbes) just five years ago, an increase of 50 percent.
Average player salaries have risen during that time, too. But when commissioner Rob Manfred said this week that ‘‘salaries are growing in line with revenues,’’ he simply was not telling the truth by almost any measure.
The players’ share of the revenue pie has decreased in the last two decades, according to multiple analyses in recent years. The market this year doesn’t figure to add any credibility to Manfred’s contention.
Manfred was the same person who claimed before the 2016 season that teams weren’t tanking and that it wasn’t a concern for MLB going forward.
Broadcaster C.J. Nitkowski, a former big-league pitcher, tweeted his thoughts about the market Friday: ‘‘Impressive by MLB teams driving the price of a league average FA starter down to about $8 million a year. Especially when you consider back in 2006 Gil Meche signed a 5/$55M with KC.’’
What does the market pace this year suggest for the big-ticket guys next year? Lester doesn’t think Machado and Harper are going to linger into February.
But can he imagine those $400 million predictions being made just a few months ago?
‘‘The money that’s being made on the other side in the game? Absolutely,’’ Lester said. ‘‘I think people are forgetting where a lot of that money is actually going to. It’s there to be spent, and it’s not being spent right now.’’
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