Now that the calendar has turned to February, scattered mutterings about the glacially slow free-agent market have become louder and more widespread.
Pitchers and catchers report to spring training camps as early as Feb. 12, with position players arriving a couple of days later. Most teams have scheduled full squad workouts for Monday, Feb. 19.
Although a number of free agents (Matt Adams, Yonder Alonso, and Wade Davis) have signed contracts, many others like Jake Arrieta, Greg Holland, Yu Darvish, and J.D. Martinez remain in limbo. Players to fill those full-squad workouts may not be available unless the logjam starts to move.
Baseball’s most visible agent, Scott Boras, has raised the specter of collusion, historically a loaded term for both players and owners. Dodgers’ closer Kenley Jansen has upped the ante by threatening that the players may have to strike.
Attempts to keep salaries down during the 1980’s ultimately led an arbiter to fine owners $280 million in 1990. However, the ill will generated during the 80’s lingered and resulted in the union’s decision to strike in 1994-95. The ’94 season ended August 11, and the rest of the season, including the playoffs, was cancelled.
MLB approved the use of replacement players to begin spring training and the season in 1995, but in late March the two sides reached an agreement. Fans, however, did not forget and expressed anger at both owners and players. Attendance plunged 20 percent and should serve as a cautionary tale to both sides.
“I would suggest that testing the will of 1,200 alpha males at the pinnacle of their profession is not good strategy for 30 men (owners) who are bound by a much smaller fraternity,” warned player agent Brodie Van Wagenen, according to several sources, including Steve Adams of mlbtraderumors.com.
But other forces may be at work in the impasse.
•An increasing reliance on sabermetrics gives teams a much more complete picture of actual performance.
•Teams like the Dodgers want to avoid going above the luxury tax threshold, which sits at $197 this year.
•Scott Boras represents some of the best players on the market including Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, and J.D. Martinez, and is holding baseball hostage until teams meet his demands.
•Salaries for select players have reached what some observers consider to be ludicrous amounts.
•Long-term contracts for players, especially those approaching 30 years of age, have shown diminishing returns or worse.
•Lately, a small number of teams have chosen to “tank” in order to get higher draft picks in the future.
Each of these factors may play a part in chilling the hot stove. But reality should come into play soon, as teams need to fill out their rosters before baseball begins again in less than two weeks. Owners can’t blame a lack of cash for the hot stove log jam, as Major League Baseball raked in over $10 billion for the first time in its history last year. Sharing the wealth makes more sense than alienating the guys who actually play the game.