Resentment grows between MLB, players union
The anger and confusion surrounding a rapidly deteriorating relationship between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association could be summed up in a few profane words from an unnamed team executive from a smaller market.
“Who the f--- are they to say I don’t want to win?,” said the executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to not being authorized to discuss labor matters publicly. “I get up every single day trying to win, and to say otherwise is just straight-up [BS].”
That bitter and private exhortation, and plenty of others like it on both the management and player sides, are evident of an escalating public war of words that is already casting a shadow on the upcoming season. The deepening divide between owners and players has already complicated efforts to reach an agreement on pace-of-play modifications and threatens to hinder efforts in other parts of the game.
As spring training starts this week, the last two weeks have seen increasingly strident statements from the league and union offices, players and agents about a historically slow offseason free-agent market that as of last week still had more than 80 unsigned players.
Among the more pointed comments: powerful CAA agent Brodie Van Wagenen claiming the slow free-agent market is the result of behavior by team owners and general managers that “feels coordinated,” suggesting collusion. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark claiming that “a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom … and threaten the very integrity of our game.” MLB firing back that “to lay responsibility on the clubs for the failure of some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted and inflammatory.”
Talk of collusion, which owners were guilty of in the 1980s and paid a $280 million settlement for, continues to resurface. But there remains a long way between mere talk and an actual union grievance.
“Collusion is very hard to prove,’ said Bill Gould, former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. But he adds he hasn’t seen a free-agent market even close to this since those collusion-affected ones of the mid-1980s, calling it “unprecedented.”
The ill winds are a marked departure from most of the past two decades, even compared to prior management-labor battles around drug testing policy and player service time. The last three basic agreements came without the public rancor and work stoppages that defined baseball’s troubled labor relations for nearly 40 years.
As industry revenue surges past $10 billion per year, players and agents are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile that growth with the lack of free-agent activity. As of last week, the largest free-agent deal signed was by outfielder Lorenzo Cain with Milwaukee for $80 million — a fraction of the many nine-figure deals of recent offseasons, and the Brewers play in MLB’s smallest media market.
Management counters that multiyear rebuilding efforts, ones that don’t call for signing an expensive veteran free agent, are common, particularly following analytics- and youth-driven reconstructions by the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, the last two World Series champions. As a result, the league said they find the union hostility misplaced. Still, industry sources said more than an hour of a roughly three-hour general session at recent owners meetings in California was devoted to labor matters.
“Every [player] market is different,” said MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. “Just like there’s some markets where the lid got blown off in terms of player salary growth, economics would suggest that occasionally you’re going to have some that are not quite as robust.”
Many other management-side executives also argue privately that some clubs are simply saving resources for this July’s non-waiver trade deadline, and more specifically for next offseason’s free-agent class, led by superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, that is widely deemed to be far superior than this year’s class.
But the ongoing furor over the lack of player signings has already damaged the ability for the league and union to strike a deal on new pace-of-play rules. That makes it more likely that Manfred will be forced in the coming days to impose new rules unilaterally, further widening the player-management divide. The current labor agreement doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season, but many industry observers expect a very bumpy ride on many other day-to-day issues between the two sides.
“Yes, there will definitely be spillover from this into other matters,” said Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant who works with several MLB teams.