TEMPE, Ariz. — It was cold and rainy Thursday morning in Phoenix, and the forecast from Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark was just as gloomy.
It’s premature to talk about a strike until 2021, certainly no one is walking out of camp right now, and even though Manny Machado just signed the richest free agent contract in history with his $300 million deal with the San Diego Padres, it hardly diminishes the frustration and anger coming from the players.
Bryce Harper will certainly get his money and starter Patrick Corbin got $140 million from the Washington Nationals, but baseball’s middle class is getting squeezed out of the game.
Only four free agents have received contracts of four or more years this winter, with just 10 players guaranteed at least three years and a stunning number who have received nothing more than one-year or minor-league deals.
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The latest contract to send players screaming to the heavens was Josh Harrison’s $2 million contract with the Detroit Tigers. Harrison, 31, a two-time All-Star who has been one of the most versatile players in baseball in his seven-year career, was frozen out all winter until finally landing a guaranteed contract.
“When you see things happening in the industry that we haven’t seen before,” Clark told USA TODAY Sports. “Every level of our membership is being affected as a result what we’re seeing.
“So the idea that Josh Harrison, as talented as he is, and the level of success he has had, who means what he means in the clubhouse, is case in point. These guys can help teams win, and if there’s a commitment to it, there will be value derived from them. Unfortunately, what we’re seeing suggests that commitment isn’t what it had been in the past.
“We still have an extraordinary number of guys that are out there. We definitely have guys that are out there who can help clubs win now, and for years to come, that still haven’t a found home as we sit here.”
Yes, we’re talking about you, former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel. And you seven-time All-Star and four-time saves leader Craig Kimbrel. And you, Marwin Gonzalez, perhaps baseball’s finest utilityman.
And it’s still beyond belief that five-time All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, 33, who happens to be one of baseball’s greatest ambassadors and role models, has no job.
“It’s disheartening, and it’s hard to explain,” Clark said, “because a guy like Adam can help a club win. A guy like Adam has helped clubs win. A guy like Adam is everything that is right about our game on and off the field.
“There are other guys who fit that mode. There are other guys that fans want to see.”
Sure, Machado got his money, but there were only three teams in serious pursuit of a 26-year-old All-Star who’s considered one of the greatest defenders in recent history.
Harper, also 26, and one of the brightest stars in generations, seems to have have just two teams – the Phillies and San Francisco Giants – in strong pursuit right now.
“We’re glad Manny has an opportunity to play in San Diego,” Clark said, “but the idea that everything is fine because Manny is signed is not accurate.”
Not even close.
The players, from Justin Verlander to Adam Wainwright to Mike Trout to Joey Votto to Jeff Samardzija are furious with what has transpired this winter, and several believe they could have the first work stoppage of their careers. It won’t happen now, since the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until December 2021, but a strike looms as a possibility during the summer of 2021.
“It suggests the seriousness of what we’re seeing,” Clark said, “and the concern that guys have about where the industry is and where it’s going. It’s unfortunate for a second offseason,” Clark said, “we find ourselves in a place where we’re still asking the same questions why these guys haven’t landed on a roster and why these guys’ phones aren’t ringing at all to the extent they could or should.”
This is the second consecutive winter the market has been painfully slow, with star players signing after the start of spring training, and games beginning. It was supposed to be different this time around. The big boys in baseball, the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, declared they were going to get below the $206 million luxury tax so they could dive into the market this winter.
Well, the Dodgers’ biggest expenditure was the $60 million they spent on outfielder A.J. Pollock. The Yankees’ biggest free agent signing was starter J.A. Happ’s $34 million deal. The Chicago Cubs spent $20 million to keep starter Cole Hamels, but the rest of their free agent expenditures were all $5 million or less.
“There were a number of excuses and rationale offered last year as to why we may have been seeing what we were seeing,” Clark said. “Now, we’re a second offseason in, and it’s not an aberration. It’s far more difficult to point to a lot of the excuses that were offered last year.
“The free agent market was fundamental to our game going back to when Curt Flood took the stand he did. It’s all predicated on competition. It works because teams are competing against one another. Teams don’t want to be in the same room with each other. Teams are interested in one-upping and being the last team standing over the other.
“That doesn’t appear to be what we’re seeing now.”
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Clark and the players want to see all 30 teams trying to win a World Series, and not half of them more concerned about getting the No. 1 draft pick. They want to see teams spending like they care about winning, and not 20 teams being $75 million or more under the $206 million luxury tax.
“At the end of the day, the idea is that, ‘Hope springs eternal’ across the league,” Clark said, “as we start the season. And right now, we don’t believe that is the case.”
So, while commissioner Rob Manfred wants a 20-second pitch clock – which he is expected to implement this year without the union’s consent – pardon the players for not worrying about the time of games at the forefront of their concerns.
“The conversations we need to have,” Clark said, “is not about finding seconds [shaved off game times]. The conversations we need to have is about trying to find answers to the substantive issues our industry has. We look forward to having a conversation about those issues.
“It is in the best interest in all involved to have it.”
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