Posted on February 6, 2018, by Bryan Zarpentine
The war of words between MLB players and the league continues amidst a historically slow free agent market. Last week, prominent agent Brodie Van Wagenen criticized the owners for their unwillingness to spend money on this year’s class of free agents. On Tuesday, executive director of the MLB Players Association made an official statement that further points to growing tension between players and the owners.
“Pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona in one week,” began Clark’s statement. “A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs.
“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 the game.”
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Clark’s “race to the bottom” comments refers to the fact that several teams are making little or no effort to sign free agents. Instead, they are trading away top players, cutting payroll, and starting rebuilding projects that know will cause them to field a losing team in 2018 and beyond.
Clark and others believe that fewer teams actively trying to improve their roster for the 2018 season has played a critical role in the stagnant free agent market. In addition to many of the top free agents still being unsigned, second- and third-tier free agents remain unsigned as well. These types of players are waiting for the top free agents to set the market and determine where teams still have holes on their roster they need to fill before the season.
MLB Commission Rob Manfred was quick to respond to Clark’s comments Tuesday afternoon. Manfred has maintained his stance that every free agent market is different. He believes that agents like Van Wagenen failed to accurately assess the market, leading to a gap between what a player thinks he’s worth on the open market and how teams value him.
“It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned,” said Manfred. “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 players’ 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.”
Manfred did not pull any punches with his comments. He may also have a point. Many of the top free agents have had offers that are not unreasonable, even if they fall short of what they expected at the start of the offseason. At this point, the market has more or less spoken. The kinds of offers free agents have already received are likely the best they’ll get.
Of course, Clark and the players union have a point as well. Two winters ago, teams pledged $2.53 billion to free agents. Last year, teams spent $1.45 billion. So far this offseason, teams have spent a mere $780 million. There are also more than 90 free agents currently without a team with spring training a little more than a week away. Clearly, spending is down, and with revenue at such a high level, the players have a right to be upset.
Last week, Van Wagenen mentioned the possibility of a spring training boycott by the players if things don’t improve. Clark has since said that the union has not recommended that as a course of action. However, Clark’s comments on Tuesday and Manfred’s quick and sharp response have confirmed that there is tension between players and owners.
Right now, the labor problems are all words and no action. But it doesn’t seem like either side is willing to back down from its stance. That could mean the top free agents will remain unsigned for the foreseeable future, as the divide between the players union and the league continues to grow.