FORT MYERS, Fla. — A few more players arrived at Red Sox camp Tuesday, the morning workout group growing a little larger as the official start of spring training draws closer.
The same is true in other cities and towns across Florida and Arizona. But what is usually a welcome sign of spring is becoming a stage for harsh words between Major League Baseball and the Players Association.
The unusually large number of unsigned free agents led to MLBPA executive director Tony Clark questioning the motives of owners.
“A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs,” Clark said in a statement.
“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.”
One hour later, MLB fired back with a statement.
“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.
“It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned. What is uncommon is to have some of the best free agents sitting unsigned even though they have substantial offers, some in nine figures.
“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.”
For a sport that has labor peace since 1995, the statements are ominous. Last week, agent Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA suggested the owners were colluding to hold salaries down.
Another prominent agent, Scott Boras, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that noncompetitive teams were a “cancer” on the sport. He believes fans will rebel against paying to see such teams.
“Where you have two tanking teams or one tanking team is in town to play a good team, they’re going to demand a reduction because the true MLB experience is no longer what it was professed to be,” Boras said.
But “tanking” has become an acceptable strategy.
The last three World Series champions — the Astros, Cubs, and Royals — won after shedding salaries and rebuilding via draft picks.
As many as 10-12 teams are following the same model this season.
The Red Sox, while not tanking, are one of the teams at the center of the controversy. In October, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski acknowledged the team’s need for a power hitter and said his offseason plans were to address that.
But the Sox have made no additions to their roster beyond re-signing first baseman Mitch Moreland for two years and $13 million.
The Sox readily admit their interest in free agent J.D. Martinez, who hit 45 home runs last season, but negotiations with Boras are now into their fourth month.
“We don’t want to bid against ourselves,” one team official said.
Along with Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Lance Lynn, and Mike Moustakas remain unsigned. In all, there are more than 100 free agents still on the market.
Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021. To what extent the players can force change before then isn’t certain.