Cold stove is frozen shut; Spring Training camps set to open

Baseball Cold Stove

Scott Boras is at the center of the free agent controversy

While the stove this off-season has been anything but hot, tensions between the players and the teams have been rising, and it’s headed towards a boiling point. Mere days before players have to begin reporting to spring training camps, a record number of free agents are unemployed, including big talent that was expected to fetch large contracts. There are 15 free agents represented by super-agent Scott Boras who remain unsigned and several are at the top of the highest rated of this off-season. Back at the GM Meetings, Boras was telling the media all about “Playoffville” and other idioms and phraseology that only Boras can spout out.

Agents have been quick to blame the teams for the lack of movement this off-season, and many of them have tossed around the theory that teams have colluded with each other in order to keep payrolls down. In the midst of this ugliness, MLB has attempted to engage the players in talks regarding pace of play, an initiative important to commissioner Rob Manfred, however players have rejected the proposals, choosing instead of focus on the frozen market. There have also been low rumblings of strikes, either prior to spring training (which the union has denied) or a few years down the road when the current CBA (collective bargaining agreement) is up in 2021. Part of the rejection of pace of play improvements is so the players can show they’re willing to dig their heels in, and if the next few off-seasons proceed like this one, I have no doubt they’ll be willing to put up a sizeable fight.

Earlier this week, MLBPA chief Tony Clark issued a statement that read: “Pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona in one week. 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 our game.”

Manfred responded: “Our Clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans. Owners own teams for one reason: they want to win. In Baseball, it has always been true that Clubs go through cyclical, multi-year strategies directed at winning. It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned. What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in the 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.”

Strong words from Manfred, and he’s not wrong. Not every available free agent will land a deal with a club, however it’s odd that this late in the game, the top talent remains available. It should be noted that some of that top talent have deals on the table, they just haven’t signed. Slugger JD Martinez has had an offer from the Red Sox for some time this offseason, and it is a reported 5 year $125 million contract. First baseman Eric Hosmer reportedly has an offer from the San Diego Padres for 7 years, $140+ million, and some believe the Kansas City Royals offered more than that over 7 years to the 28-year-old free agent. So why hasn’t either guy signed? They each reportedly want another year on those offers. Free agent starting pitcher Yu Darvish reportedly has multiple $100+million offers on the table. Unlike Hosmer and J.D. Martinez, however, he seems to be withholding a decision because he is hoping the Dodgers come through with a strong offer, as he would like to remain in LA according to reports.

That’s a tremendous amount of money put on the table for an off-season that has been accused of being overly frugal. Part of the problem here appears to be a gap in what the players believe their fair market value is versus what that market is offering them. Spoiler alert – “fair market value” is what the market is willing to pay you. It’s not what the market paid someone else similar to you a few years ago. Martinez appears willing to hold out into spring training if that’s what it takes, and I’ve read that one prominent free agent (it was not stated who) was willing to hold out until the trade deadline in order to get the deal that he wants, believing that a team who lacked what he had to offer would come calling in July rather than negotiate with other teams to execute a trade. This seems like a terrible idea, in my humble opinion, but I’m not a prominent free agent. (I’m also not currently unemployed.)

Agents tell their players who are entering free agency what they think he’ll likely get offered from various teams, and a large part of that is based on contracts other players have signed in the past. The problem right now is that teams seem to be getting smarter. They’re taking a step back and seeing that $100+ million contracts don’t often work out well. They’re using advanced analytics to forecast what a player will be like in the future, and they’re better able to tailor offers based on that.

Why pay someone for the player he has been, when you can estimate the player he will become? Why continue to make poor business decisions regarding mega contracts for guys on the wrong side of 30 years old, when those haven’t been working out? Continuing to do so would be foolish. Teams have begun to value young players who are still improving over guys on the downside of their careers, and it has shown this off-season. Younger players are cheaper and have more upside than an aging veteran. Focusing on younger, cheaper talent also allows teams to stay under the salary cap, eliminating luxury tax payments. Seems like a win-win for the club.

The market is changing, and it’s time the players and their expectations change with it. Anyone looking at the CBA could see this coming. Going into the most recent negotiation, players focused on comfort, such as more off days built into the season and extra seats on buses, rather than the financial aspects of the game. The free agency system as we know it has not changed for decades. Teams gets 6 years of control for players. The first year, they are paid league minimum. Over the next 2, they are given pay raises based on performance, but those are generally minimal. In the final 3 years, players are eligible for arbitration, and they begin to see their salaries rise much more substantially, however they are still paid less than what they would be out on the free agent market.

Arbitration is an odd process that can result in a team sitting down and telling a player all the reasons he’s awful, and why they shouldn’t pay him as much as he would like. Fun times, no? Generally, few players actually make it to this point, as both sides work out a deal before a scheduled arbitration date. This year, however, a record number of players have gone through or are scheduled to go through this process, sometimes over a trivial amount of money, a clear sign that players are angry over the current state of affairs.

With a change in how teams view and value players, the answer seems to be negotiating for a change in this system during the next CBA. Instead of asking for a chef in each clubhouse, fight for free agency to begin at a younger age, when teams are more likely to drop big money on a player. Fight for an increased number of arbitration years and lessen how many times the team can give a minimal pay raise. Fight for more substantial increases in the salary cap to ensure those caps increase at the same rate at which contracts have been. In a time where MLB teams are raking in billions of dollars, assure that money is able to be spent on the talent that drives that profit. Don’t disincentivize spending.

And let’s address tanking. While rebuilding is a cycle that teams often go through, the current system rewards those clubs that completely bottom out and start over from scratch with little regard to the product they put on the field in the meantime. With the success the Cubs and Astros recently had with this, it’s hard to blame other teams for seriously considering this option. This needs to be addressed in the next CBA to protect against half the league chasing a World Series 5 years from now. In a world where clubs get a tremendous amount of their revenue from lucrative television contracts, it’s easy to see why they can weather the storm of a less than enthusiastic fan base for several years.

They’ve learned that once they start winning again, the fans will return, so they’re able to just wait it out. It will take creative thinking to find ways to deal with this, as simple solutions like home-market blackouts that the NFL uses aren’t feasible when you’re hosting 81 games each season. The answer probably lies somewhere in a combination of revamping the draft system and some out of the box thinking. Maybe there needs to be a salary minimum in addition to the soft cap that already exists. Maybe teams need to meet average attendance baselines. I’m not sure what the best solution is, here – if I did know, someone would be paying me a heck of a lot more money than I currently make as a social worker.

While agents and some players have been very quick to blame the teams for the current stagnant off-season and changes in spending habits, some players feel they only have themselves to blame for this predicament. Brandon Moss, who was traded to the Oakland Athletics by the Royals in an attempt to clear some cap space for Hosmer, has been very vocal about how he feels the players have gotten themselves into this mess, and it’s up to them to fix it.

“Everything that happens in the game of baseball, as far as how things are done financially, is bargained into a collective bargaining agreement. The way free agency runs, the way draft money is allotted, the way international signing bonus is allotted. Everything is bargained,” Moss said. “I feel like we put more things that are of less value at the forefront. Feel like we’re starting to have to walk a little bit of a tightrope that we’ve created for ourselves. I think that we have given the owners and we have given the people who are very, very business savvy the opportunity to take advantage of a system that we created for ourselves.”

The current head of the union is a former player, a dramatic shift from previous heads, who were lawyers or negotiators that were skilled in the art of bargaining. I see the appeal of having a player as the lead at the table, as he is coming from a place that understands what the daily grind of the game is like, however it does appear to have put the players at a disadvantage in the long-term.

Moss continued “…[W]e have the right to bargain and set our price, just like the owners have the right to meet that price. But what we’ve done is we have incentivized owners, we have incentivized teams to say ’We don’t want to meet that price. It costs us too much to meet that price and it costs us draft picks. It costs us international signing money. … We’re going to have to pay a tax if we go over a certain threshold’ that we (the players) set ourselves. … And the only reason those things are there is because we bargained them in.”

Moss is not alone in recognizing the part the players had in creating this situation, and he feels a responsibility to future players to begin working on fixing it. “I feel like, as players, we have to watch out for our own interest,” he said. “If you run too good of a deal out there in a bargaining agreement, then of course the owners are going to jump on it. You have to be willing to dig your heels in a little bit — fight for the things the guys in the past have fought for. … I just hate to see players like me taking advantage of a system that was set up for me, by other players, and not passing it along to the next generation of players. Everybody wants to look up and scream collusion … sooner or later, you have to take responsibility for a system you created for yourself. It’s our fault.”

It’s beginning to look more and more like a big fight is coming for the next CBA. Players appear more than willing to dig their heels in as they begin to wrestle control back from the owners. Owners, of course, won’t be very willing to roll over and spend more money than they have to. Prepare yourself, y’all, because the writing is all over the wall.

In the team time, the MLBPA has announced that they will be holding a camp for unsigned free agents that will open on Tuesday, Feb. 13. It will be held at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fl., and will be led by former Astros skipper (and former Nationals third base coach) Bo Porter. Players’ personal trainers will not be permitted at the camp. All travel and housing will be arranged by MLBPA, and players will be given a daily per diem. I’ve heard that signed players will be showing up at the beginning of camp as a show of support for the unsigned players prior to them having to report to their own clubs’ spring training facilities.

It’ll be interesting to see if the start of camps causes any movement to happen at the top tier of the market, which would then allow signings to trickle down to the middle of the pack talent. We could see a flurry of activity over the next few weeks, although contracts will likely be smaller deals than most of these guys expected to get going into this off-season.

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