MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark has issued a statement pushing back against recent comments from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred in which the latter rejected the idea that tanking teams have led to a depressed free-agent market. Said Manfred (link via the Associated Press):
…Our teams are trying. Every single one of them wants to win. It may look a little different to outsiders because the game has changed, the way that people think about the game, the way that people think about putting a winning team together has changed, but that doesn’t mean they’re not trying. …
I think it’s important to remember that the Major League Baseball Players Association has always wanted a market-based system. And, markets change. Particularly when the institution around those markets change. We’ve had a lot of change in the game. People think about players differently. They analyze players differently. They negotiate differently. Agents negotiate differently. … I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure for how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be.
Unsurprisingly, Clark took umbrage both with the notion that every team is making an effort to win and with Manfred’s apparent attempt to suggest that the players are partially to blame for the lack of free-agent activity. His comments today are as follows:
Commissioner Manfred’s latest comments and his attempts to shift blame and distract from the main issues are unconstructive and misleading at best.
Players’ eyes don’t deceive them, nor do fans’. As Players report to spring training and see respected veterans and valued teammates on the sidelines, they are rightfully frustrated by a two-year attack on free agency. Players commit to compete every pitch of every at-bat, and every inning of every game. Yet we’re operating in an environment in which an increasing number of clubs appear to be making little effort to improve their rosters, compete for a championship or justify the price of a ticket.
Players have made a sincere attempt to engage with clubs on their proposals to improve pace of play and enhance the game’s appeal to fans. At the same time, we have presented wide-ranging ideas that value substance over seconds and ensure the best Players are on the field every day. We believe these substantive changes are imperative now — not in 2022 or 2025, but in 2019. We look forward to continuing to engage with MLB on changes that address substantive issues — to the benefit of fans, Players, the 30 clubs and the game of baseball as a whole.
There’s obviously some underlying disagreement as to just what it means for a team to be “trying” in this day and age. There’s no denying Manfred’s point that the market is shifting, though of course it’s anything but an unregulated arena. Teams are responding to the incentives established in the collective bargaining process, and doing so with ever more attention to economic rationality. Setting up a potentially expansive contention window in an efficient manner, though, often means sacrificing near-term improvements for longer-term flexibility. And there’s surely a reasonable argument to be made that many teams aren’t “trying” — or, at least, aren’t doing so as much as might be preferable from the perspective of creating a competitive and entertaining product.
In any event, this is just the latest exchange of words in the still-evolving battle over team spending on player contracts. Clark indicated that the players are still amenable to engaging in talks regarding several proposed rule changes, though the league’s position seems to be that the union’s efforts shouldn’t be entertained until it’s time to discuss a new collective bargaining agreement. For the time being, then, both sides are jockeying for position in the realms of both public perception and their own direct constituencies.