Player agent Brodie Van Wagenen took aim at MLB owners on Friday regarding this year’s historically slow-moving open market. Reactions to the lack of free agent activity this winter have continued to pour in since, including from MLBPA executive director Tony Clark.
“For decades free agency has been the cornerstone of baseball’s economic system & has benefited Players and the game alike,” Clark said. “Each time it has been attacked, Players, their representatives & the Association have united to defend it. That will never change.”
Clark’s remarks come at a time of growing unrest from the players, many of whom have voiced their displeasure with the fact that owners aren’t opening their checkbooks for free agents this winter. One prominent example is Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, who, despite signing a five-year, $80MM contract a winter ago, recently raised the idea of the players going on strike when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021. His teammate Rich Hill, who also received a big payday last offseason (three years, $48MM), told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe last week that “how the free agent market has been going has been disconcerting this offseason and a lot of players are concerned about it.” Hill called the situation “really bad” and noted that “players just want what’s fair.”
As FanGraphs’ Craig Edwards pointed out Friday, the majors’ cumulative payroll is almost sure to stagnate or decrease compared to 2017, even though all 30 owners received a $50MM payout this year from MLB’s sale of BAMTech to Disney. To this point of the offseason, only two of MLBTR’s top 10 free agents – the Brewers’ Lorenzo Cain (five years, $80MM) and the Rockies’ Wade Davis (three years, $52MM) – have found teams. Of MLBTR’s pre-offseason top 50 free agents, nearly half are currently unsigned, which is staggering given that the market opened three months ago and spring training is only a few weeks away.
Like their fellow agent Van Wagenen, Seth Levinson of ACES and Joshua Kusnick of Double Diamond Sports Management spoke out against the current state of affairs Friday. In a statement of his own (via Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic), Levinson offered:
“There is a bond that exists between Clubs and its fan base. The integrity of that time-honored relationship is predicated upon the good faith effort of the Club to compete to the best of its ability. The CBA which defines the relationship between Clubs and Players is a good faith effort to create and assure that there is a competitive balance among all Clubs so that the greater good and best interests of the game are served.
“There may be legitimate reasons for the problems that players have encountered in this market. That said, there is no Industry in this country where competing businesses act in virtually an identical manner. It is disconcerting, and disheartening for Clubs that are awash in revenue and or are fully capable of improving its product to choose to do otherwise. Jerry Dipoto so eloquently made the point that there may be more Clubs competing for the 1st pick in the June Amateur Draft than for the World Series.”
As Van Wagenen and Levinson did, Kusnick (via Twitter) suggested that collusion is at play, saying “it is impossible” for him to believe that all 30 teams are suddenly evaluating players the same. He went on to reveal that he has six major league free agents who are currently seeking minors deals, contending that the freeze at the top of the market is preventing teams from showing much interest in lesser FAs.
“It really does trickle down to A-ball, and I have never dealt with anything like this in 15 years,” continued Kusnick, who added that “ownership has historically attempted to subvert the players’ ability to earn the maximum amount of dollars for their services. And just because we have enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of labor peace that has benefited both sides does not mean the players are oblivious to the realities that this market has presented. The MLBPA and players have been tested before but have never broken. It will not happen this time either.”
Kusnick closed with “those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,” which could be a warning toward owners that players will strike again – as they most recently did in 1994-95 – if necessary. The game’s latest work stoppage resulted in the loss of an entire season two-plus decades ago, and we may be headed down a similar road within the next few years if the league and the union don’t start finding common ground by then. With commissioner Rob Manfred pushing to implement pace-of-play changes that most players are less than thrilled with, the relationship between the sides is seemingly on the verge of getting even worse.