This week, all 30 Major League Baseball franchises opened their spring training camps in Arizona and Florida for six weeks of tune-ups, drills, and simulated games before the season gets underway at the end of March.
But this year, a 31st camp is taking place alongside the rest. In Bradenton, Florida, a group of several dozen Major Leaguers arrived on Tuesday to participate in team activities of their own, with one significant omission: the team.
With 41 days until first pitch, dozens of the game’s top players find themselves unemployed. They are free agents, players whose contracts expired at the end of last season and have yet to be re-signed by another team.
In most years, the best available free agents get snatched up quickly during the offseason, signing lucrative contracts roughly commensurate with their performance on the field. Free agency, in other words, is a crucial tool for players to ensure they are being paid fair market value, and that the billionaire owners of the 30 professional franchises redirect the revenue generated each year and invest it back into the team itself.
But not this year. As of publication, top players like Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas, and Eric Hosmer all remain unsigned. All four of those players were starters for playoff teams in the last three seasons. One is just two years removed from a Cy Young Award. Two others finished in the top 15 in MVP voting just last season. In any other year, all of them would have already been signed to multi-year contracts valued at well over $100 million apiece.
It can be disconcerting to talk about labor relations in regard to salaries that stretch into nine figures, but make no mistake: Major League Baseball’s ongoing labor crisis is part and parcel of the same labor disputes that baseball fans across the country are experiencing at a more pedestrian scale.
The biggest charge being leveled against ownership by unsigned players and their agents — albeit quietly — is collusion. It’s strange, players argue, that none of the 30 teams in the league appear to be competing all that hard to sign players who, by all accounts, would significantly improve a team’s competitiveness. In a normal market, a top free agent — be they a baseball player, skilled computer coder, distinguished professor, or celebrated musician — fields numerous offers from potential employers, uses those offers to negotiate for a higher salary or friendlier terms, and ultimately ends up accepting the job that best suits him or her. In a market where all of the employers collude among themselves, there is no room for negotiating. Employers have all the power, and employees are ultimately forced to accept unfriendly terms or be pushed out of the industry altogether.
The MLB Players Association, the union tasked with representing the interests of the league’s players, hasn’t yet formally accused owners of collusion, but nor has it dismissed the notion entirely. And why should it? Baseball has brazenly engaged in collusion before, most notably during the late 1980s, when the entire league established a de facto rulebook to dictate the size and length of player contracts. The MLBPA and individual players have threatened the league with legal action numerous times in the years since on the basis of collusion, and have pried some concessions out of ownership in the process.
League officials, of course, deny all allegations of collusion. They point to an inconvenient confluence of events as the cause for depressed contract offers this year, including the looming 2018 free agent market, when several generational superstars will all be available for teams to sign. Some, like Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper, could fetch contracts valued at close to half a billion dollars, perhaps leading some teams to lay off signing expensive deals now in favor of making a bigger splash in a year.
The league’s wealthiest teams — the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Red Sox, for instance — have also made efforts to rein in their payrolls this year in order to fall below the league-imposed salary tax threshold, which exists to redistribute some money to smaller market teams that otherwise wouldn’t be able to compete for top players. Compounding that problem, teams like the Cubs and Astros have won World Series titles in the last two years by dramatically tightening their financial belts first, then building up a winning team from scratch. It’s a model that several other teams are now eager to try — meaning that of the 30 franchises in baseball, as many as half are not interested in spending money on players right now.
Those answers have not satisfied the players’ union, or the players themselves. Though the list of unsigned free agents is relatively small compared to the number of players currently on a big league roster, the implications of this quiet off-season and the scarcity of team dollars is concerning to anyone who is approaching the end of their existing contract. “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,” said MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark in a statement last week. “This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”
Last month, Dodgers closer Kenly Jansen, one of the best relief pitchers in the game, floated the idea of a walkout, which hasn’t happened in baseball since 1994. “Maybe we have to go on strike, to be honest with you,” Jansen said at a team event in late January.
It’s not an unreasonable proposition. While dozens of the game’s best athletes languish without a job and league-wide payroll might drop for the first time in almost a decade, the 30 owners are raking in the dough. Last season set a new record for revenue at over $10 billion. Baseball, it turns out, is as American as apple pie and a widening income gap.