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Notable names still without a home on Opening Day

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The 2017 regular season began on Sunday afternoon with the Yankees facing the Rays, the first of three games on the slate. With every team’s Opening Day roster finalized, there are still a handful of notable players hanging around in free agency.

Ryan Howard: That Howard is still a free agent comes as no surprise. The free agent market was full of 1B/DH types, which really hurt Howard and a handful of other hitters who will be mentioned below. Howard is also 37 years old and is coming off the worst season of his career. His bat is waning, he’s a well below-average fielder, and he can’t run. According to Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe, Howard still wants to play. Sadly, it’s tough to see Howard getting a shot even during the regular season as there are some more attractive 1B/DH players available.

Angel Pagan: Pagan had a decent showing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, but remains unsigned. The teams most recently linked to him include the Braves, Blue Jays, Giants, Padres, and Tigers. Pagan, 35, still has gas in the tank as he hit .277/.331/.418 with 12 home runs, 55 RBI, 71 runs scored, and 15 stolen bases in 543 plate appearances last year with the Giants.

Jonathan Papelbon: We haven’t heard much about Papelbon since December, when his agent Seth Levinson said the veteran closer was focused on dealing with a private family matter. Papelbon is 36 years old and coming off of the worst season of his career, which saw the Nationals acquire Mark Melancon to take over the closer’s role from Papelbon mid-season. The club eventually released him in August. He didn’t sign with a new team though some, including the Red Sox, showed interest.

Alexei Ramirez: Ramirez, 35, is coming off of the worst season of his career, which is starting to sound like a familiar theme. With the Padres and Rays last year, he hit .241/.277/.333 in 506 PA. Along with the weak bat, Ramirez’s speed and defense have cratered. Injuries do happen throughout the year and Ramirez can play both shortstop and second base, so it seems feasible he might find an opportunity during the season.

Billy Butler: Butler spent 2016 with the Athletics and Yankees, finishing with a .752 OPS in 274 PA. The veteran, who turns 31 on April 18, is a platoon DH at this point in his career, but a big warning flag is that Butler’s production even against lefties has fallen. Unfortunately for him, he’s competing with other 1B/DH types for work in an industry that values players of that archetype less and less every day.

Doug Fister: Three years ago, Fister was the Nationals’ best pitcher, putting up a 2.41 ERA over 25 starts. He wasn’t able to replicate that success, putting up a 4.19 ERA in 2015 and 4.64 last year. Interest in his pitching services was lukewarm during the offseason, with the Royals, Mariners, Marlins, Padres, and Pirates showing muted interest. Pitching is always at a premium, however, so Fister is likely to find an opportunity at some point this season.

Justin Morneau: The Twins showed interest in bringing back Morneau, but decided against it. The 35-year-old hit .261/.303/.429 in 218 PA with the White Sox last season. His age, positional limitations (1B/DH), and injury history have given teams pause when considering him. As he showed he’s still close to league average as a hitter, though, he could be to a team what Matt Stairs was to the Phillies in 2008.

Must-Click Link: Do the players even care about money anymore?

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Yesterday I wrote about how the union has come to find itself in the extraordinarily weak position it’s in. The upshot: their leadership and their membership, happily wealthy by virtue of gains realized in the 1970s-1990s, has chosen to focus on small, day-to-day, quality of life issues rather than big-picture financial issues. As a result, ownership has cleaned their clock in the past few Collective Bargaining Agreements. If the union is to ever get back the considerable amount of ground it has lost over the past 15 years, it’ll require a ton of hard work and perhaps drastic measures.

A few hours later, Yahoo’s Jeff Passan dropped an absolute must-read that expands on that topic. Through weeks of interviews with league officials, agents and players, he explains why the free agent market is as bad as it is for players right now and why so many of them and so many fans seem not to understand just how bad a spot the players are in, business wise.

Passan keys on the media’s credulousness regarding teams’ stated rationales for not spending in free agency. About how, with even a little bit of scrutiny, the “[Team] wants to get below the luxury tax” argument makes no sense. About how the claim that this is a weak free agent class, however true that may be, does not explain why so few players are being signed.  About how so few teams seem interested in actually competing and how fans, somehow, seem totally OK with it.

Passan makes a compelling argument, backed by multiple sources, that, even if there is a lot of money flowing around, the fundamental financial model of the game is broken. The young players are the most valuable but are paid pennies while players with 6-10 years service time are the least valuable yet are the ones, theoretically anyway, positioned to make the most money. The owners have figured it out. The union has dropped the ball as it has worried about, well, whatever the heck it is worried about. The killer passage on all of this is damning in this regard:

During the negotiations leading to the 2016 basic agreement that governs baseball, officials at MLB left bargaining stupefied almost on a daily basis. Something had changed at the MLBPA, and the league couldn’t help but beam at its good fortune: The core principle that for decades guided the union no longer seemed a priority.

“It was like they didn’t care about money anymore,” one league official said.

Personally, I don’t believe that they don’t care about money anymore. I think the union has simply dropped the ball on educating its membership about the business structure of the game and the stakes involved with any given rule in the CBA. I think that they either so not understand the financial implications of that to which they have agreed or are indifferent to them because they do not understand their scope and long term impact.

It’s a union’s job to educate its membership about the big issues that may escape any one member’s notice — like the long term effects of a decision about the luxury tax or amateur and international salary caps — and convince them that it’s worth fighting for. Does the MLBPA do that? Does it even try? If it hasn’t tried for the past couple of cycles and it suddenly starts to now, will there be a player civil war, with some not caring to jeopardize their short term well-being for the long term gain of the players who follow them?

If you care at all about the business and financial aspects of the game, Passan’s article is essential.