MLBPA chief Tony Clark has issued a statement, first provided by ESPN.com’s Jerry Crasnick, leveling significant accusations at MLB organizations. With a huge number of free agents still un-signed, Clark says that teams have failed to engage the market in earnest.
Here is the full statement:
“Pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona next 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.”
Notably, Clark does not accuse teams of acting in concert to artificially suppress earnings — quite a different, more serious potential charge for which we’ve seen no evidence. Rather, his view seems to coincide with the broad points already presented by some prominent media members and agents (as well as at least one sitting GM): i.e., that more teams than usual are strategically disinterested in trying to win in the coming season.
Unsurprisingly, Major League Baseball has a different view of the matter that reflect prior comments from commission Rob Manfred. In a statement released to Crasnick, the league rejects Clark’s characterization as an “unfair” attack on MLB teams. Arguing that many top free agents are “sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers,” the league statement suggests that agents have failed to “value their clients” reasonably “in a constantly changing free agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics, and the impact of the new Basic Agreement.”
Clark’s statement seems to represent a notable ramp up in the rhetoric surrounding the notably slow free agent process this winter. At the moment, though, it seems that this is mostly a war of words for public relations positioning. Camps will soon open without several prominent players, barring some quick developments in the market, which will dramatically raise the visibility of this long-simmering dispute.
The union/agent stance seems to be a familiar one, arguing that tanking tactics are reducing competition for top free agents. From the league/team side, as the above statement suggests, the rejoinder is that clubs are within their rights to operate as they see fit within the rules regime agreed upon by collective bargaining. It isn’t too difficult to see how each side hopes to draw upon the natural but competing inclinations of fans both to chide “cheap” owners and to turn a skeptical eye toward “selfish” players.
In truth, this debate isn’t a new one. Tanking has been discussed for years. Manfred’s prior argument was, in essence, that the market adequately allows for such a strategy; it’s just not that successful an approach if too many teams employ it, since inevitably plenty of clubs will “lose” the “race to the bottom” and fail to recoup top draft picks, etc. Dave Cameron has argued, though, that this year may be somewhat unique in that, for many teams, the incentives to pursue draft status and cost savings may be sufficient to outweigh an expensive, low-odds effort to chase down the half-dozen “super teams” currently pacing the game.
As Evan Drellich rightly observes on Twitter, the concept of tanking does not really adequately cover the deeper mechanisms at play. There’s more at play here, somewhere in the intermingling of pervasive and deepening analytics; aging curves in a (mostly) post-PED era; and drastically cabined amateur spending and other collectively bargained rules. The most recent collective bargaining agreement largely continued the preexisting rules regime, with a few tweaks, largely reflecting an assumption that market mechanisms would allow player compensation to keep pace with earnings growth. Even as they swim in revenue, though, MLB organizations increasingly seem to be pursuing strategies that eschew major long-term free agent entanglements — potentially challenging the assumptions undergirding the players’ commitment to the existing CBA framework.