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Nightengale: MLB’s Free Agency Freeze is Embarrassing for Baseball

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Bryce Harper represented the Nationals in the 2018 MLB All-Star Game. Photo: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

By Bob Nightengale |

The baseball equipment and uniforms have been packed, the trucks are rolling on the highways, and in just a few days, spring training camps open in Florida and Arizona.

While local TV crews have breathlessly showed clips and soundbites of team equipment trucks leaving their snowy cities, something is mysteriously missing.

Ah, yes, the players.

There still are more than 90 unemployed free agents on the market today, including a pair of 26-year-old stars – Bryce Harper and Manny Machado – who have nowhere to go, waiting for someone to offer the kind of mega-deal that was almost commonplace a few years ago.

The market freeze has left agents furious, players exasperated, fans frustrated, with tension rising between the players and owners, threatening a work stoppage in 2021.

“We think it’s bad for the players, the fans, and the game,” said Bruce Meyer, senior director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, “being this close to the beginning of the season and having so many fanbases not even knowing who’s going to be on their teams.”

Major League Baseball argues that this has been the new norm, saying that 45% of the free-agent class was unsigned at this time in 2015-16, and 62% a year ago. This winter, 52% of the free agents remain unsigned, leaving all but a few signing minor-league contracts or forced into retirement.

“All things being equal,” said Dan Halem, Major League Baseball deputy commissioner, “we would like to have players sign earlier in the offseason. Teams can announce signings and create fan interest. But in our market, there are no parameters when players need to sign by.

“It takes two parties to sign a contract.”

Yet, for an industry generating nearly $11 billion in revenue, with clubs generating record annual profits, the free-agent marketplace has gone as icy as the polar vortex. Only one player, Washington Nationals pitcher Patrick Corbin (six years, $140 million) has signed a contract more than $68 million.

Just four players have signed contracts longer than three years. And 16 teams have yet to sign a free agent to a multi-year contract.

This is the only major sport that doesn’t have a salary cap, only a luxury tax. But there are only two teams who currently are over the $206 million threshold – the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs – although the New York Yankees are projected to also surpass it.

There currently are 11 teams who don’t even have a $100 million payroll, according to salary information obtained by USA TODAY Sports, and six teams who are under $75 million –Tampa, Pittsburgh, Miami, San Diego, Baltimore and Oakland.

“We’re seeing an increasing and disturbing willingness of clubs to forego opportunities,” Meyer said, “to make their product on the field as entertaining and successful as it can be.”

The union projects that 12 teams will begin the 2019 season with a substantially lower payroll than a year ago, creating imbalance, lack of competitiveness, and dreary pennant races.

There were eight teams, a quarter of all baseball, that lost 95 or more games last season – including a record three teams that lost 100 games. There were 10 teams that finished at least 20 games out of first place.

But only one of those teams, the Cincinnati Reds, have substantially improved themselves with a current payroll of $113.36 million committed to just 15 players.

Still, Halem argues, it’s not as if clubs aren’t offering contracts, just not to the players’ liking. The Chicago White Sox offered Machado a seven-year contract two months ago, and continue to wait. The Padres met last week with Harper and agent Scott Boras, and also spoke with Dan Lozano, Machado’s agent. The Philadelphia Phillies – who haven’t had a winning season since 2011 – are actively engaged with Harper and Machado, and are willing to provide either one franchise-record deals.

Still, since the Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the season that since has been rescinded, no one has offered a deal to make Harper or Machado blink. It’s maddening to Boras, who signed Alex Rodriguez to a historic 10-year, $252 million contract with the Rangers in 2000, and another 10-year, $275 million deal in 2007 with the Yankees, and has since watched revenues triple.

Lozano had Albert Pujols sign a 10-year, $240 million contract in 2011 with the Los Angeles Angels, and had two other teams offering as much more or more, but now has trouble attracting the same interest in a player who’s six years younger than when Pujols signed.

Clubs insist they simply are smarter now with their extensive analytic studies on long-term contracts and players’ productivity past their 30th birthday. Players are grousing that teams are simply being cheap, pocketing tens of millions of dollars each year, with little regard to winning.

The players, many using a social media platform, have been more vocal about their angst than any time in the past 20 years, in disbelief how few teams are even engaged in marquee free agents.

“Two of the best players in the game,” Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant said at the Cubs’ convention, “and [teams] have very little interest in them, from what I hear. It’s not good. It’s something that’s going to have to change. I know a lot of the other players are upset about it.”

San Francisco Giants third baseman Evan Longoria said in an Instagram post: “It seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should ‘value’ for your team even be a consideration? It’s not your money, it’s money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of.

“Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team. And as players we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for time and time again.”

The disgruntlement will only get louder when veteran players report to camp, with a clubhouse full of reporters poised to deliver their message back home.

“Players are permitted to express themselves, and say whatever they want,” Halem said, “they’re not muzzled. We have no issues with players expressing their views. We just want to make sure a lot of that information is accurate.”

MLB still projects that by the time the remaining players are signed, including the likes of Dallas Keuchel Craig Kimbrel, Marwin Gonzalez, Mike Moustakas and Gio Gonzalez, teams will have spent $2 billion in free agency. It will be the second-largest expenditure in history behind only 2015 ($2.5 billion).

There likely won’t be more than three teams that exceed the luxury tax this year, but it’s the historical average, Halem says. There was never more than a single team besides the New York Yankees paying a luxury tax from 2005-2014. Five teams paid a luxury tax in 2016, but that was before the threshold was reset with a new agreement.

MLB also flatly rejects the notion that teams are rebuilding more than ever before in history, almost losing games purposely to improve their draft status.

“We just don’t think that’s reality,” Halem said. “We’ve always had rebuilding in baseball. You never want the perception out there that clubs aren’t trying to win. We think that perception is wholly unfair.”

The only concept the players and owners agree with these days is that it’s bad for business, even embarrassing, that the crème de la crème of the free-agent market may still be home when camps open next week.

Go ahead, blame whoever you want, but it’s an awful, even frightful look for the baseball industry to have several of its biggest stars to not only be unemployed, but have only a few precious teams interested in their services.

Play ball.

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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