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Players unified in brewing labor fight, union chief says after meeting with Cubs

MESA, Ariz. — When asked about his concerns over rising anger among players after slow-moving free-agent markets the last two offseasons, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called some of it ‘‘overblown’’ and urged a roomful of media not to ‘‘sensationalize’’ the issues players are raising.

The top free agent on the market didn’t sign until Feb. 28, and many free agents remain unsigned into March, including a former Cy Young Award winner who threw 200 innings last season and a seven-time All-Star closer who had 42 saves last season for the World Series champs.

Sensationalized to say players are becoming increasingly upset? Cubs right-hander Kyle Hendricks, for one, says no.

‘‘I think that it’s the way it is,’’ said Hendricks, who graduated from Dartmouth with a degree in economics. ‘‘Players are definitely going to back players. So whatever needs to be done at the end of the day will be done.

Tony Clark

‘‘There are still a couple of years left on this bargaining agreement, so maybe something will change. But if it gets to a point where a strike is necessary, I know all the players [feel] that’s what’s going to have to be done. We don’t want to get there; we don’t ever want to do that. We love baseball. All we want to do is play, and we want to be there for the fans.’’

Thursday marked the annual stop in Mesa for MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark and his staff to meet with Cubs players about union issues.

And after more than 90 minutes behind closed doors with the local rank-and-file, Clark made it clear he thinks players are ready to fight, if necessary, to regain footing lost to owners in recent collective-bargaining agreements. He said they are as unified as they were when he played a generation earlier.

Tanking and the luxury tax are among the targets of the union. Clark suggested the union might seek discussions with the commissioner’s office about some of the issues well before the natural negotiating cycle to replace a CBA that runs for another three seasons. And players increasingly have used the word ‘‘strike’’ unsolicited when talking about fighting against what they widely view as salary suppression.

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Never mind the speculation about collusion that also is growing.

‘‘Right now there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent, after ’21,’’ Phillies reliever Pat Neshek told USA Today. ‘‘[Owners] have a lot more to lose than us, I think. The players have been talking about, for the last couple of years, putting money aside, and I think we’re going to be ready to fight.’’

Think this subject is being sensationalized?

‘‘No,” Clark said. ‘‘And it shouldn’t be marginalized, either, that we’ve had two offseasons unlike any two we’ve seen.’’

Clark identified the tanking trend as a primary focus among the causes for the shift in the free-agent market, with large numbers of teams in recent years taking themselves out of much of the market altogether.

He wouldn’t say how the union plans to attack the issue to resolve it or even where it ranks among negotiating priorities.

‘‘I will tell you this: It is a significant part of the conversation,’’ he said.

Might the union also go after the competitive-balance tax (CBT) — or luxury tax — too?

Clark seemed to suggest as much when he was asked how much responsibility the union takes for giving concessions in the last two CBAs that helped create some of one-sided conditions now shaping the market. Those include luxury-tax levels that don’t necessarily align with projected industry revenues.

‘‘There are always teams — or have been teams — that are close to it,’’ Clark said of luxury tax. ‘‘With the restraint that appears to be shown [by teams] in the fashion that it’s being shown, perhaps the CBT has run its course altogether.’’

What exactly the union could offer to eliminate the CBT or do about tanking is unclear. But a fight clearly is brewing.

And the players ‘‘are as engaged and unified as any group that I’ve seen in a long time,’’ Clark said.