John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
Last year there was a relatively simple answer to the question of why baseball's free-agent market was frozen:
Wait 'til next year.
Only here it is, next year, and two of the most desirable free agents to ever hit the market -- Bryce Harper and Manny Machado at age 26 -- are among the 100-plus major leaguers still unsigned as spring training approaches, so now it's clear the climate officially has changed in the way teams are doing business.
And while the underlying reason seems to be the rise in analytics, which has taken emotion out of star-buying and made teams less inclined to take on the risk of long-term contracts, the sport's revenues are at such an all-time high that players are angry, suspecting the slow-down in spending is driven at least partly by greed among the owners.
As a result, acrimony is building, with players griping publicly about the lack of free-agent signings. And so for the first time in decades, there seems to be real potential for labor warfare when it comes time to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement after the 2021 season.
Yes, that's three full seasons from now, so baseball is still a long way from being in a state of crisis, but at this rate tempers will be boiling over by then, which is how the sport found itself in the unthinkable position of canceling the final two months of the 1994 season, World Series and all, due to a players' strike.
Could it happen again?
Conventional wisdom says no, that there is too much money for everybody in a $9 billion industry to think such stupidity could prevail, especially considering how much damage the last strike did to baseball.
However, one former player, who preferred not to be quoted by name because he offered criticism of current Players Association chief Tony Clark, said logic doesn't always prevail when players get angry.
"You'd think they're making too much money now for it to ever happen, but it's all relative," the former player said. "Everyone said the same thing when we went on strike, but you can't underestimate players' competitiveness if they think they're beating treated unfairly.
"They should be mad at Tony Clark for letting it get to this point, signing off on the last agreement where teams have too much incentive for staying under the luxury tax, and not enough incentive for trying to win.
"It's obvious the system has to change, but if the owners aren't willing to budge on things like a payroll floor or earlier free agency, then I'd imagine Clark's only option would be stir up the anger to the point of action."
It's true, if the model for building teams and paying players has changed, thanks largely to analytics, then it stands to reason the system needs to be changed.
At least a couple of issues stand out as top priorities:
1) Baseball needs to come up with a system that makes the idea of tanking less attractive
As it is there are too many teams in rebuild mode, and those teams have no incentive to sign free agents who could improve their ballclub.
Installing a floor for payrolls would help in that regard, as the former player suggested, forcing teams to spend a minimum amount -- ideally making even bad teams more competitive. And raising the bar on those luxury-tax thresholds would help on the opposite end, giving big-market teams more reason to spend big again without penalty.
Also, I saw one intriguing idea from former Braves star Dale Murphy, who wrote a column in The Athletic proposing that the order of the amateur draft be re-structured so that the No. 1 pick would go to the team that finished closest to a postseason berth without making it, the No. 2 pick to the second-closest finisher, and so forth.
The idea would be to reward teams for trying to win, which would encourage them to spend money on players. Even, heaven forbid, players in their 30s, which leads us to…
2) Because teams have become so wary of those players 30 and older, it only seems fair to adjust the system so that players aren't required to play six seasons before reaching free agency
Most players don't tend to get there until they're at least approaching 30, which is hurting their value.
On the other hand, that's why Machado and Harper were supposed to be a lock to get 10-year deals, because they are only 26, and yet obviously the market hasn't been as bullish as expected. But that speaks to the risk inherent in guaranteeing a player $300 million -- the extreme example of the type of long-term commitments teams are less inclined to take these days.
Still, earlier free agency surely would make players more attractive as a whole, even if they are going to have to come to grips with the idea of signing shorter-team deals.
In addition, players should fight for a higher minimum salary than the current $550,000 as a way of rewarding them in their pre-arbitration years.
Can such drastic changes be made without the type of acrimony that defined the labor negotiations going back to the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, finally leading to the lost season of '94?
At the very least, players need to be willing to compromise on the pace-of-play issues that they've been fighting at every turn, much to commissioner Rob Manfred's dismay. They're going to have to give to get, but perhaps Clark is holding out for some assurances, using the players' cooperation as a bargaining chip.
All in all, there are many issues at play, most of them complicated in nature, and they can only be resolved with a spirit of cooperation. Remarkably, that has been the prevailing climate for more than 20 years, due in large part to the fallout from the '94 strike.
Just not anymore.