We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.
On the last day of 2018, the top two free agents of the offseason — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado — are still on the market. Historically that’s quite unusual, as free agents of their caliber almost always sign in the late fall or very early winter. But just “almost.” In fact it’s the second offseason in a row that the blue chippers are still looking for work as the ball prepares to drop.
Last year we entered a whole new world in which the hot stove season isn’t so hot anymore, for both the blue chippers and scores and scores of other free agents who were still looking for work as spring training loomed. Indeed, by the beginning of February nearly 100 free agents remained unsigned, including several that were expected to land big paydays in the offseason.
As the winter weeks wore on, player discontent grew palpable, exhibiting itself via various statements from agents which, increasingly, took on an antagonistic tone with respect to Major League Baseball and its clubs. Several issued statements lamenting clubs’ seeming disinterest in fielding competitive teams, as evidenced by their lack of offseason activity. Some suggested that there was collusion afoot. Others noted that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is a poor one for players, creating disincentives for teams to sign free agents. Major League Baseball, its clubs and their supporters countered that it was a slow market because it was a weak market, and that players had unrealistic salary expectations.
By early February things got downright ugly. A prominent agent, after accusing clubs of collusion, suggested that players could stage a boycott of spring training. That talk was contradicted by the Major League Baseball Players’ Association, which had been cautious in its language about it all, but MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark did say that teams, via their unwillingness to sign players, were in a “race to the bottom” that represented “a fundamental breach of trust between a team and its fans” that “threatens the integrity of the game.”
Things also got desperate. Soon after issuing that statement, it was revealed that the union was going to hold a spring training camp for unsigned players so that they would not fall behind their employed peers in conditioning as the Cactus and Grapefruit League seasons began.
The camp, at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, was led by former Astros manager Bo Porter, with travel, housing assistance, a per diem and general liability insurance in case they were injured arranged by union. It was not like every other spring training camp, however, in that it was, more or less, on total lockdown. There was no fan access and no media access. I suspected at the time that the reason for this was that the union did not want its free agents being the subject of sad stories in which they were cast as hopeless or pathetic or facing the end of their careers. Not that that was prevented in the end. It was also not host to all of the free agents, as Scott Boras clients did not attend, training instead at Boras Corp’s well-appointed facilities.
As spring training games got underway in late February, around 60 free agents remained unsigned, including ones who didn’t figure, a few months prior, to have trouble finding work, such as Jake Arrieta, Greg Holland, Mike Moustakas and Lance Lynn. J.D. Martinez — the top bat on the market — agreed to a deal with Boston on February 19, with said deal taking another week to become official. Some of the guys left dangling as February turned to March went on to play meaningful baseball in he 2018 big league season (e.g. Arrieta, Moustakas, Holland, Clay Buchholz, Brett Anderson, Neil Walker, Trevor Cahill, Jonathan Lucroy, and Melky Cabrera). Many more of the remaining free agents either ended up on minor league deals, found their way to the independent leagues or faded away into involuntary retirement.
Whatever happened to any individual players it was clear that we were in a brave new world when it comes to free agency and the business of baseball. Whether it was driven by economics, competitive considerations, a weak market, teams rebuilding and/or tanking, incentives in the Collective Bargaining Agreement, collusion or some combination of them all, it became clear that teams preferred younger, cheaper players who were under team control to signing free agents. That continued throughout the season and continues in the current offseason. The message to players is unmistakable: if you want to make money, sign a team-friendly deal before reaching free agency and, barring that, strongly consider accepting a qualifying offer once you hit the market, because the big dollars in free agency aren’t as free-flowing as they once were.
The question now is what the union plans to do about that going forward. We’re still a couple of years away from a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and, presumably, Tony Clark and his team will be taking aim at the rules in place — such as the luxury tax and the process which keeps players under team control during what has become their most valuable years — that depress player salaries and the free agent market. The teams, meanwhile, have most of the leverage. The players wait it out and sweat it out. Their agents gnash their teeth and scramble for deals.
Well, most of the agents. One of them — that prominent agent I mentioned above who was so mad about the slow free agent market that he alleged collusion and threatened a spring training boycott — is no longer an agent anymore. He’s the general manager of the New York Mets.
If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?