By Dan Bernstein
Veteran baseball players and their agents want more money, and they are finding increasingly grandiose ways of saying so.
The teams that write the checks are telling them both implicitly and explicitly that they would rather marshal their resources otherwise, either keeping their powder dry for next year’s bevy of big-ticket possibilities or relying on homegrown talent under contract control, or any combination therein.
There are over 100 unsigned players as spring training arrives, with a confluence of circumstances affecting the current market. An increasing number of MLB teams are content to rebuild, with their respective fans aware that both the Cubs and Astros just demonstrated a proven method of getting bad to get good. Elsewhere the contenders are largely content to operate around the margins, signing some short-term help without committing to low-value years on the back end of long contracts. The latter teams will get fat piling up wins against the former until the trade deadline offers a more economical chance to gird themselves for the playoffs.
But don’t tell Scott Boras, who wants the purse strings opened right now because they just should be. Calling the current environment a “noncompetitive cancer,” Boras hides behind the argument of fan mistreatment and unfairness to local television broadcasters. “The audience knows you’re not trying to win,” he said. “They’re going to demand a reduction [in ticket price] because the true MLB experience is no longer what it was professed to be.”
Except the fans in some of these markets are cool with it, since they know their team is trying to win the World Series.
Union chief Tony Clark heated things up by referring to the slow pace of signings as “a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of the game.” He also claimed that “having a historic number of guys available speaks to the concerns about competition on the field.”
In response MLB released a statement noting that “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 sitting unsigned, even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures.”
That comment infuriated Boras, as reported by Jon Heyman of FanRag Sports, with the agent angry that such contractual information was shared publicly by the league. Right back at him came MLB executive Dan Halem, who retorted “if Mr. Boras spent as much time working on getting his players signed as he does issuing inflammatory and unsubstantiated statements to the press, perhaps the events of this offseason would be different.”
Even bigger and bolder was CAA baseball chief Brodie Van Wagenen, who went so far as to threaten a player boycott of spring training that later had to be walked back by the union. Van Wagenen posted a letter Friday on Twitter that announced “a rising tide among players for radical change.”
“A fight is brewing,” he wrote, as he made a pointed reference to the game’s most recent work stoppage. “Bottom line, the players are upset. No, they are outraged. Their voices are getting louder and they are uniting in a way not seen since 1994.”
It’s all rhetoric and brinksmanship from the agents’ side at the moment, advocating for their older players that used to command big paydays even through their years of decline. More teams now seem smart enough to not want to pay for such things, having learned lessons from ill-conceived deals that rewarded past production instead of current value.
One side will blink soon, and a market for this year’s big names will be set. It’s just getting more uncomfortably close than usual to the opening of camp, and everybody seems both testy and stubbornly dug in.