Players, agents unhappy after historically slow MLB offseason

Empty baseball stadiumThe MLB offseason is basically over with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training next week. But unlike past offseasons where the biggest names attract lots of interest and big money, many of those big names are still free agents. Teams have left more than 100 free agents unsigned, leading some agents to speculate about boycotts and collusion while players and the players’ association consider their options.`

The 2017-18 offseason continued a trend that started the previous year, with teams being hesitant to hand long-term deals to veteran players and generally being more financially cautious. However, teams like the Miami Marlins and the Pittsburgh Pirates have taken that caution to a whole new level, shedding salary in trades involving marginal returns for their best players. Meanwhile, some of 2017’s top performers are entering the 2018 season unemployed, including 45 home run hitter J.D. Martinez and 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

The slow offseason has prompted some harsh words from prominent agents such as Scott Boras and Brodie Van Wagenen. Boras called the trend a “noncompetitive cancer” that would ultimately drain the sport of its entertainment value. Van Wagenen was even more direct, speculating about a possible spring training boycott and describing the unrest among players as a “rising tide.” MLB has not seen any major labour unrest since the 1994 strike, which had a long-lasting financial impact on the league.

The MLBPA issued a response distancing the union from reports about a spring training boycott, but executive director Tony Clark also used strong language to defend the concept of free agency in a statement from last Friday. Agents are obviously inclined to use speculation about labour action as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations, while the players’ association must be more measured in its official response, but everyone seems very aware of the unique position in which this offseason has put them. There might even be a separate spring training camp for unsigned free agents if the need is there.

Some cracks in the logjam appeared recently when the New York Mets signed Todd Frazier and the Houston Astros re-signed George Springer to avoid arbitration, but plenty of potential deals remain, and time is running out.