Spring training is difficult time for unsigned free agents
Throughout the last couple of years, we have covered the ongoing labor issues prevalent in baseball, particularly as it pertains to free agents. In recent years, we have an increasing number of players begin spring training without a team name on the front of their uniforms. As fans and as members of the media, we tend not to put too much thought into what this is like for those players -- the inconveniences and difficulties they endure.
I reached out to free agent reliever Peter Moylan, who has pitched across parts of 12 seasons in the majors since 2006. He has played for the Braves, Dodgers, and Royals, as well as in the Australian Baseball League. Moylan, 40, had his third stint with the Braves last year, posting a 4.45 ERA in 28 1/3 innings before missing the final two months of the season due to a forearm injury. Moylan is currently a free agent, hoping to catch on with a team for the 2019 season. He has signed minor league contracts dating back to the 2013 season.
Moylan described his offseason as beginning with “at least two weeks off from throwing, usually a month.” He then starts an offseason workout and strength program, which is about four times per week. In his words, “I won’t pick up a baseball for the first couple weeks of lifting, but I will do all my arm care exercises.” Those include five-pound weights and rice buckets. He adds, “I usually start throwing on the first Monday of December starting with a couple throws at 75 feet and gradually building up from there.”
I asked Moylan about his preparation specifically in the lead-up to spring training as an unsigned free agent. He said, “Today is January 30th and I have thrown 10 bullpens to this point and have six more planned before hopefully heading to Arizona or Florida. I have signed minor league deals since 2012 so I am different than most guys because I need to be ready to go day one to have any chance of making the team. Every bullpen or live batting practice counts and I cannot afford to be less than 100 percent game ready.”
Comparing himself to players who have already signed contracts and have access to team staff to help prepare for the season, Moylan said, “I will have the occasional conversation with front office staff and trainers, but I am not on a roster so my access is fairly limited compared with a player who is under contract.”
Moylan noted that “housing becomes a real issue” for players who don’t yet have contracts in the days leading up to the start of spring training. He elaborated, saying, “Guys who are under contract can lock in spring houses months and years in advance. Late signings get what’s left. People fly in from all over the country to watch games, so it becomes harder to find a rental or hotel. Then I typically don’t find out if I have made the team until the last day so that gives me a week to find somewhere to live for the season, usually in a city I have no idea about.”
The collective bargaining agreement details the various expenses that teams need to cover for their players. Players get a base weekly allowance of $320.50. Players that live away from “the Club’s Spring Training headquarters” also get a base supplemental weekly allowance of $57.00. Players get a daily meal and tip allowance that was $91 in 2017 and will be adjusted based on the Consumer Price Index for urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPIW). Players also get a room allowance of $40 per day, and first-class hotel and airfare accomodations. Players without contracts, obviously, don’t get these allowances and accomodations, so they are paying more out of pocket.
I brought up that the players’ union put together a spring training camp for unsigned free agents last February, something that -- as Craig noted at the time -- hadn’t been done since 1995 during the last work stoppage in baseball. There are many benefits players have from being in camp with a specific team, including, Moylan says, “The obvious answer of getting more time to meet your teammates and staff.” He elaborates, “Baseball players are creatures of habit, very reliant on routine. Our spring routine starts in February, not March. That’s not to say players won’t be ready. I remember speaking to older guys when I first broke in and they would tell me they never used to do a thing until spring started. It’s clearly nothing like this now and teams are fully aware that guys are in shape and will be ready even if they sign them late.”
When asked about his overall thoughts on the trend of teams signing fewer free agents, Moylan replied [emphasis his], “The system is broken, plain and simple. Teams control your salary for the first six years paying us a fraction of what our TRUE value is. Players accepted this knowing that once they reached free agency, it will all even out. Unfortunately, as you see, this isn’t the case anymore.”
There are obviously a lot of things players as young as 18 or 19 years old and players as old or older than Moylan have to worry about. At the end of the day, these are still human beings who are looking for legitimate work and deserve to be empathized with and supported. Hopefully, the insight provided by Moylan helps fans better empathize better with players while they exist in an uncomfortable labor climate.
Asked for final thoughts on the whole situation as an unsigned player approaching spring training, Moylan brought up “anxiety and uncertainty, especially at my age.” He said, “I know I can still pitch but that doesn’t guarantee you a job.” Moylan also wanted to make clear that he’s not complaining. “I was a pharmaceutical rep who pitched in the  World Baseball Classic and managed to have a 12-year big league career. I am so lucky.”