Tony Clark says teams’ failure to sign free agents “threatens the very integrity of the game”

Getty Images

As spring training gets closer and closer, nearly 100 free agents remain unsigned, including several that were expected to land big paydays this offseason. As the weeks have worn on, player discontent has grown palpable, exhibiting itself via various statements from agents which, increasingly, have taken on an antagonistic tone with respect to Major League Baseball and its clubs.

Earlier this offseason multiple agents issued statements lamenting clubs’ seeming disinterest in fielding competitive teams, as evidenced by their lack of offseason activity. Major League Baseball, its clubs and their supporters have countered that it’s a slow market because it’s a weak market, and that players have unrealistic salary expectations. Some have suggested that there is collusion afoot while others have, quite correctly in our view, noted that the current collective bargaining agreement is a poor one for players, creating disincentives for teams to sign free agents.

Things have gotten downright ugly of late. Last week a prominent agent suggested that players may stage a boycott of spring training. That talk was contradicted by the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, which has been cautious in its language about the market thus far, suggesting that not everyone on the players’ side of things is in agreement about where things stand.

Today, however, the union made its boldest statement yet on the matter, with its Executive Director, Tony Clark, releasing a statement saying that teams, via their unwillingness to sign players, are in a “race to the bottom” that represents “a fundamental breach of trust between a team and its fans” that “threatens the integrity of the game.” His whole statement is reproduced below. Major League Baseball responded, once again, that agents are to blame for misreading the market.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with Clark’s statement — there is truth to it, though I presume a lot of fans disagree about the state of their trust with respect to the club for which they cheer — it’s worth asking what this statement accomplishes.

On one level, it can be read a supportive of players who are increasingly frustrated. In this it echoes the words of Scott Boras on the matter a couple of months ago, and most of what Boras says publicly should be read as addressing the concerns of his clients. Clark has a lot of unsettled members in his union, and may be trying to communicate to them that he feels their pain. One wonders if Clark is a couple of months behind the curve on reading his membership’s anger, though. As we said, last week agents were talking about wildcat strikes. Going with what Boras was saying in November and December may not be enough to quell the dissatisfaction.

On another level it can be seen as a P.R. move aimed at fans, trying to rally them to pressure teams into signing free agents. If that’s the case, I feel like Clark is misreading fans pretty badly.

Every fan wants their team to get better, and lots of fans can look to a single player who they wish their GM would sign. I suspect it’s the small minority of fans, however, who think that there is a problem with the market as a whole. Fans almost always view these matters through the lens of owners. They think, in the aggregate, players are overpaid and ask for unreasonable deals. They can, on the one hand, wish that J.D. Martinez was in their team’s lineup but, at the same time, say “the players are a bunch of spoiled babies!” Expecting them to get on board with a message that says “the owners are harming the integrity of the game” seems like a pretty major stretch.

It also seems like a pretty irrelevant aim. Benefits for players are won in negotiations, not in the court of public opinion. The players have almost always been the bad guys to the majority of fans and have won almost all of the things they’ve won on the labor front while taking positions most fans found to be super unpopular. Union leadership was always even more hated than the players. The union would always like fans to back them, of course, but the idea that Marvin Miller or Don Fehr would spend extra effort to consciously rally fans is rather silly.

Whatever Clark is up to here, he has a pretty big job ahead of him. He has to keep an angry and, I suspect, divided membership happy. He has to explain to them why the market is the way it is. If he wants to keep the players’ confidence as he does so, he has to do it without admitting that a lot of the reason the market is the way it is is because of the missteps of union leadership. And, of course, he has to figure out a way to fix it all, both around the edges over the next couple of years, and in a fundamental way as the union starts to plan, communicate, educate and organize before the next Collective Bargaining Agreement sessions begin in a few years.

Good luck, Tony. You’re gonna need it.

Here’s Clark’s statement:

Here’s the league’s statement in response:

“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.”

MLB free agent watch: Ohtani leads possible 2023-24 class

Getty Images
1 Comment

CHICAGO – The number will follow Shohei Ohtani until it is over. No, not Ohtani’s home runs or strikeouts or any of his magnificent numbers from the field. Nothing like that.

It’s all about how much. As in how much will his next contract be worth.

Ohtani is among several players going into their final seasons before they are eligible for free agency. There is still time for signatures and press conferences before opening day, but history shows a new contract becomes less likely once the real games begin.

There is no real precedent for placing a value on Ohtani’s remarkable skills, especially after baseball’s epic offseason spending spree. And that doesn’t factor in the potential business opportunities that go along with the majors’ only truly global star.

Ohtani hit .273 with 34 homers and 95 RBIs last season in his fifth year with the Los Angeles Angels. The 2021 AL MVP also went 15-9 with a 2.33 ERA in 28 starts on the mound.

He prepared for this season by leading Japan to the World Baseball Classic championship, striking out fellow Angels star Mike Trout for the final out in a 3-2 victory over the United States in the final.

Ohtani, who turns 29 in July, could set multiple records with his next contract, likely in the neighborhood of a $45 million average annual value and quite possibly reaching $500 million in total.

If the Angels drop out of contention in the rough-and-tumble AL West, Ohtani likely becomes the top name on the trade market this summer. If the Angels are in the mix for the playoffs, the pressure builds on the team to get something done before possibly losing Ohtani in free agency for nothing more than a compensatory draft pick.

So yeah, definitely high stakes with Ohtani and the Angels.

Here is a closer look at five more players eligible for free agency after this season:


Nola, who turns 30 in June, went 11-13 with a 3.25 ERA in 32 starts for Philadelphia last year. He also had a career-best 235 strikeouts in 205 innings for the NL champions.

Nola was selected by the Phillies with the seventh overall pick in the 2014 amateur draft. There were extension talks during spring training, but it didn’t work out.

“We are very open-minded to trying to sign him at the end of the season,” President of Baseball Operations Dave Dombrowski said. “We’re hopeful that he’ll remain a Phillie for a long time.”


Chapman hit 36 homers and drove in 91 runs for Oakland in 2019. He hasn’t been able to duplicate that production, but the three-time Gold Glover finished with 27 homers and 76 RBIs in 155 games last year in his first season with Toronto.

Chapman turns 30 on April 28. Long one of the game’s top fielding third basemen, he is represented by Scott Boras, who generally takes his clients to free agency.


Hernández was acquired in a November trade with Toronto. He hit .267 with 25 homers and 77 RBIs in his final year with the Blue Jays. He was terrific in 2021, batting .296 with 32 homers, 116 RBIs and a .870 OPS.

The change of scenery could help the 30-year-old Hernández set himself up for a big payday. He is a .357 hitter with three homers and seven RBIs in 16 games at Seattle’s T-Mobile Park.


The switch-hitting Happ is coming off perhaps his best big league season, setting career highs with a .271 batting average, 72 RBIs and 42 doubles in 158 games. He also won his first Gold Glove and made the NL All-Star team for the first time.

Chicago had struggled to re-sign its own players in recent years, but it agreed to a $35 million, three-year contract with infielder Nico Hoerner on Monday. The 28-year-old Happ, a first-round pick in the 2015 amateur draft, is on the executive subcommittee for the players’ union.


Urías, who turns 27 in August, likely will have plenty of suitors if he reaches free agency. He went 17-7 with an NL-low 2.16 ERA in 31 starts for the NL West champions in 2022, finishing third in NL Cy Young Award balloting. That’s after he went 20-3 with a 2.96 ERA in the previous season.

Urías also is a Boras client, but the Dodgers have one of the majors’ biggest payrolls. Los Angeles also could make a run at Ohtani, which could factor into its discussions with Urías’ camp.