WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Gone the first week of spring training is the Smurfs and rainbows vibe. The usual light-hearted feel conjured by first sounds of gloves and bats, the initial regathering of the scattered, has been replaced by acrimony and jabs.
Player after player has taken shots in the media about this offseason’s free agency grind. What was expected to be a star-laden moment for Major League Baseball has been replaced by disdain. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned. The whole process feels like dragging an anvil through the desert by your teeth.
And players have not been modest about their irritation. Nationals closer Sean Doolittle spent the offseason on Twitter decrying the situation. He’s continued to do so in-person and via social media since arriving in Florida. Max Scherzer delivered expansive thoughts when asked. Ryan Zimmerman said Sunday, “I don't think it takes a genius to see that something is going on.”
Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred used Sunday afternoon to fire back. In front of a small crowd of reporters and intrigued handful of coaches and general managers, Manfred stepped to a podium at the West Palm Beach Hilton and began to swing.
“There are 11 players who had a WAR above 1 last year that are unsigned,” Manfred said. “I believe, just like last year, that market is going to clear at some point here in the next few weeks. Those players are going to be signed. Do I wish, if I had my way, that Scott Boras would find a way, or Dan Lozano, or whoever, whatever agent, would find a way to make a deal with some club sooner rather than late? Yes, I do. But, we negotiated a system that allows the market to operate and I have every confidence that those players that I just described, that market is going to clear before we get to playing real games.”
Tanking, free agency and pitch clocks were the main concerns of Manfred’s press conference. He said the pitch clock would be tested in the spring. It’s of little consequence. What matters is all the pre-loaded ammo Manfred brought to beat back the public claims of the players, while simultaneously pushing the issue onto the union and, in part, media.
Watching Manfred were the old and the new in baseball. Tony La Russa, 74, relaxed at his assigned seat from the earlier media scrum on what baseball called, “Spring Training Media Day” for the Grapefruit League. Thirty-something club executives, including Baltimore’s Mike Elias, turned to listen in. Former players who are now managers -- Don Mattingly and Davey Martinez -- pivoted from their spots.
What they heard was Manfred taking shots at the union. They saw and heard him sigh when asked about teams perceived to be not trying. Manfred laughed, poked a reporter for sticking to the topic of free agency, and generally tried to recover a narrative slipping through baseball’s control. He threw a body blow when a reporter suggested the players, based on their comments, would be open to radical changes in the next collective bargaining agreement.
“Look, let me say a couple things: You seem to have more information than I do, which is, um…somewhat surprising,” Manfred said, then tried to laugh it off. “I went to [MLBPA executive director] Tony [Clark] a year ago. A matter of fact, a year ago this week. I told him in an effort to try and diffuse some of the negativity he had started in the public with, that we’re prepared to talk to him about whatever he wanted to talk about in an effort to get our labor relations in a more positive spot.
“Look, we can live with the basic agreement we negotiated. I’ve negotiated some not-so-good ones. I’ve negotiated some good ones. In each and every one of them, to the owner’s credit, they were prepared to live with those deals. And we’re prepared to live with the deal we have now. Despite that fact, we went and offered Tony the opportunity to have dialogue. I have had no response to that offer. So, what you’re talking about in terms of what they’d like to do is kind of news to me.”
Manfred countered suggestions of tanking by saying payroll was not a good measure of an organization’s overall effort to win -- which is a strange sentiment for a league with a competitive balance tax. He took another shot at Clark by referencing a statement from March of last year in which Clark claimed a third of the league was not trying to win. The MLBPA had filed a grievance against the Pirates, Marlins, Athletics, and Rays for not complying with spending rules outlined in the CBA. Those teams averaged 83 wins last season. Oakland (97) and Tampa Bay (90) were two of 11 MLB teams to win 90 or more games.
“He did very poorly with those four teams,” Manfred said. “...Our teams are trying.”
Despite multiple succinct jabs at Clark, Manfred later said there is no acrimony between the two. Of note here: Manfred is a lifelong lawyer with a degree in labor law negotiations.
When he pivoted to the media without saying the word, Manfred mentioned the idea of a $400 million player being floated years in advance of his free agency. He did not name who this mystery player could possibly be. Manfred tacked on in his reasoning for the malaise by saying MLB’s free agent system is entirely different than that of the NFL or NBA, called it “bi-lateral,” and said he “hates” the negativity around the game’s current and future state.
What he didn’t do was deliver statements to quell those concerns. Instead, he swung back at the MLBPA during 30 minutes of finger pointing, further embedding the idea 2021 is en route to a troubling situation.
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