A February hot stove update, while a majority of top free agents remain unsigned: Major League Baseball and its players’ association got into a sparring match via press release today.
This afternoon, the MLBPA sent out a statement about its view of the current free-agent market and competitive environment, attributed to union executive director Tony Clark:
“Pitchers and catchers will report to camps in Florida and Arizona in one week. A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs.
Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season. This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom. This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”
Perhaps not the strongest statement that a union could make after a winter that’s been so dead as to stir whispers of potential collusion or salary suppression, along with reports of players discussing the possibility of boycotting the start of spring training. But it’s all, at the very least, correct. Pitchers and catchers do report next week; it is unheard of to have so many free agents available so late (more on that later); franchise values and league revenues are up, and a significant portion of teams are clearly not interested in competing this year, at least not at such a level that they reasonably might be considered in contention for a playoff berth. All true.
About an hour later, MLB responded with a statement of its own. This one contains quite a bit more to unpack:
Our Clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans. Owners own teams for one reason: they want to win. In Baseball, it has always been true that Clubs go through cyclical, multi-year strategies directed at winning.
The first sentence is just entirely incorrect if the reader is meant to assume that all clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field at this moment, but let’s be generous and assume that the league meant that clubs are committed to doing so generally in the terms of an unspecified big-picture timeline. Still. How does a person reasonably claim that the A’s—who’ve sat at the bottom of the AL West for three straight seasons and are likely staring down the barrel of another—are committed to putting a winning product on the field in any sense or frame? What about the Marlins, with their desperate payroll slashing?
As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan noted a few weeks ago, there are perhaps 10 teams who’ve made no indication that they have plans to participate in this year’s free-agent market. The league considers this a fair part of a “cyclical, multi-year strateg[y] directed at winning.” But that requires quite a bit of faith in the idea that every team not competing right now is, in fact, doing so as part of a larger plan. A team that’s not competitive is not automatically one engaged in a grand strategy, currently focused heavily on drafting and developing before plans to shift into a higher gear and acquire additional talent for a big playoff push. A team that’s not competitive certainly can be attempting all of that. But a losing team can just be a losing team, with no big plans to eventually invest enough to start winning. And when this many clubs are deliberately choosing not to contend, there’s simply not a way that every single one can bank on pulling off the perfect tank-and-rebuild move. Losing, in and of itself, is not a strategy—or, at least, it’s certainly not one automatically directed at winning.
As for the idea that owners only purchase a team because they want to win, feel free to turn back to Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman’s purchase of the Marlins.
It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned.
It is not common. As Ryan Pollack and Travis Sawchik demonstrated at FanGraphs today, this is the slowest winter in the history of free agency by signing percentage, and it’s the slowest in at least 18 years by volume of signings. Unless MLB has some other metric for measuring “large numbers of free agents unsigned,” this one is simply wrong.
What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in the nine figures.
What is uncommon is to have the league freely sharing information that relates to individual teams’ unconfirmed offers to specific free agents.
It is the responsibility of players’ agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics, and the impact of the new Basic Agreement. To lay responsibility on the Clubs for the failure of some agents to accurately assess the market is unfair, unwarranted, and inflammatory.
(The mention of “advanced analytics” here is particularly curious in that front offices have complete access to Statcast player-tracking data and all the metrics that come from it, while agents and players do not, but that’s another subject.)
A hot stove fueled by passive-aggressive press releases burns the slowest, or something like that.