WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — Rob Manfred reported to spring training ready to play defense.
Manfred, the commissioner of Major League Baseball, is tired of hearing complaints from players and agents about the changing economic landscape of his sport. In a news conference Sunday, he suggested that players get over it, and that most of the unsigned free agents are not very good, anyway.
“There are 11 players that had a WAR above 1.0 that are unsigned,” Manfred said, referring to wins above replacement figures used by MLB.com. “I believe that, just like last year, that market is going to clear at some point in the next few weeks. Those players are going to get signed.
“Do I wish, if I had my way, that Scott Boras or Dan Lozano — whatever agent — would find a way to make a deal with some club sooner rather than later? Yes, I do. But we negotiated a system that allows a market to operate.”
Boras represents outfielder Bryce Harper. Lozano represents infielder Manny Machado. Both players are 26 years old, with 10 All-Star selections between them. They were still unsigned Sunday, with dozens of others, nine of whom have a WAR above 1: Jose Bautista, Clay Buchholz, Carlos Gonzalez, Gio Gonzalez, Marwin Gonzalez, Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Jose Iglesias and Denard Span.
Teams have stopped spending like they used to, and only one free agent has signed for more than $68 million this winter — starter Patrick Corbin, who got a six-year, $140 million deal from the Washington Nationals. Gone are the days that a player in his 30s could get a 10-year, $240 million contract, like the one Robinson Cano got from the Seattle Mariners before the 2014 season.
“I’m surprised,” Cano, who was traded to the New York Mets in December, said Sunday. “I would say every baseball player is shocked.”
They shouldn’t be, Manfred insisted. Instead, he suggested, players should recognize that they are now valued differently by a data-driven industry less prone to the emotional decisions that once drove salaries ever higher.
“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,” Manfred said. “We’ve had a lot of change in the game. People think about players differently. They analyze players differently. They negotiate differently.”
While the Boston Red Sox had the game’s highest payroll last season and won the World Series, Manfred cited the Tampa Bay Rays, who won 90 games with a low budget. That did not translate to big crowds — the Rays finished last in the American League in attendance — but Manfred said it proved that spending does not equate to winning.
“The process of putting together a competitive team looks a little different,” he said. “Fans have to get used to that different process and have a little faith in the people that are running their clubs.”
Players have been frustrated by teams choosing to build with young, cheap labor when proven veterans are available — for more money, of course. But the calculus that players used for decades no longer applies. That, said Nationals reliever Sean Doolittle, is a bigger issue than any perceived flaws in the collective bargaining agreement.
“Our biggest mistake, I think, was operating under the assumption that the norms that were always in place were going to continue to be respected,” Doolittle said Friday. “Like, there was always this kind of unspoken agreement, or model, set up where for your first six years, most guys are underpaid because they don’t really have that much leverage. You’re locked into your minimum salary your first three years, and then when you go through the arbitration process for the next three years, there’s no market — it’s just you and one buyer, so there’s only so much you can do to move your value. But then you make it up on the back end in free agency.”
Most players have stopped short of claiming outright collusion, the illegal tactic owners used to suppress salaries in the 1980s. But many are at least suspicious of the way groupthink has taken over the industry. Adam Wainwright, a highly respected veteran starter for the St. Louis Cardinals, sounded an alarm in an interview last week with InsideSTL.com.
“Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent,” Wainwright said. “I don’t think anybody’s hiding that. I’m just worried people are going to walk out midseason.”
Baseball had a prolonged midseason strike in 1981 and a devastating strike in 1994 that canceled the World Series for the first time in 90 years. That strike bled into the next season when owners turned spring training into a farce by fielding teams of replacement players.
The current collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021, and Manfred dismissed concerns about a strike this season.
“It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of how you conduct good labor relations to have people running around three years before an agreement expires, before there has been one word of negotiation, arguing that there is going to be a strike,” he said.
“I actually have a degree in labor relations. We never learned that tactic. It really is not productive in terms of our business, I don’t think it’s good for our fans, I don’t think it’s good for our players. And I know it’s not going to change the outcome of the negotiations, ultimately.”
For now, Manfred would like to negotiate on-field changes like a 20-second pitch clock, which will be used in spring training games and will most likely be adopted for the regular season. Other changes — such as a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers and the adoption of the designated hitter in the National League — will not be in place this season.
Manfred would rather fans debate those topics — or anything else, really — as long as they don’t dwell on those unsigned free agents.
“I do believe that we have the greatest game in the world,” he said. “Maybe we’re going to make some little changes to make it even better. And I do think once we do get out there and start playing, that positive glow around the game will re-emerge.”