One of baseball’s most prominent agents has suggested a possible spring training boycott in response to an offseason free-agent market beset by gridlock and depressed wages.
Brodie Van Wagenen, co-head of the baseball division at CAA Sports, released a lengthy and pointed statement on Friday morning, stating that “there is a rising tide among players for radical change. A fight is brewing.”
The statement, perhaps the most highly charged to date in an environment of growing player discontent, comes as dozens of top free agents remain unsigned just weeks before the start of spring training. The list of available free agents includes Royals stars Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, in addition to slugger J.D. Martinez, starting pitchers Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta and closer Greg Holland.
Van Wagenen offered a harsh critique of Major League Baseball owners and warned of a potential backlash among players. He hinted at potential labor unrest not seen in the decades since the sport’s last work stoppage, a players’ strike that canceled the World Series in 1994.
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“Bottom line, the players are upset,” said Van Wagenen, whose agency represents such stars as Robinson Cano, Yoenis Cespedes and Buster Posey. “No, they are outraged. Players in the midst of long-term contracts are as frustrated as those still seeking employment. Their voices are getting louder and they are uniting in a way not seen since 1994.”
Later Friday, MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark weighed in with his own statement.
“For decades free agency has been the cornerstone of baseball’s economic system and has benefited Players and the game alike,” Clark said. “Each time it has been attacked, Players, their representatives and the Association have united to defend it. That will never change.”
Players across baseball have become increasingly frustrated in recent weeks as the market has remained sluggish. Former Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain signed a five-year, $80 million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers in late January, representing the largest expenditure of the offseason. First baseman Carlos Santana signed a three-year, $60 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies in December. Those deals have proven to be the exception.
“A boycott of Spring Training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change,” Van Wagenen continued. “Players don’t receive their paychecks until the second week of April. Fine them? OK, for how much? Sue them? OK, they’ll see you in court two years from now. At what expense?”
The statement comes just a week after Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen told reporters in Los Angeles that “maybe we have to go on strike, to be honest with you.”
“That’s how I feel about it,” Jansen said, according to The Los Angeles Times.
Earlier this week, former Royal Brandon Moss appeared on MLB Network and said that players “have to be willing to dig your heels in a little bit, fight for the things that the guys in the past have fought for.”
For now, the voices of angered players have been simmering mostly below the surface, out of public view. Yet the debates over what has caused this winter’s slow market have continued. Some have pointed to baseball’s front offices, which are now largely run by data-driven executives who see the game through a cold, calculated lens. Others have pointed out that many of baseball’s largest spenders, such as the Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, have mostly sat out this offseason; the Dodgers and Yankees have stated their desire stay under a luxury tax kept in place in the latest collective-bargaining agreement.
In the process, the collective-bargaining agreement, negotiated last offseason, has become a lightning rod. In negotiations, players lobbied for such luxuries as extra meals and chefs in the clubhouse and additional days off. But caps on amateur spending, both in the draft and international, remained in place, as did the luxury tax system.
“We have incentivized owners and we have incentivized teams to say: ‘We don’t want to meet that price, it costs us too much,’” Moss said. “‘It costs us draft picks. It costs us international signing money. It costs us, all these different things. We’re going to have to pay a tax if we go over a certain threshold that (players) have set ourselves.’”
The market has also been affected by a league structure that has increasingly incentivized losing. The last three World Series champions — the Royals, Cubs and Astros — were built on the backs of losing seasons, high draft picks and systematic rebuilding plans. As the 2018 season approaches, nearly a third of the teams in baseball are emulating that approach and rebuilding, a process that generally includes shedding salary and selling off assets.
“I have six free agents with MLB service time whom are seeking (minor-league) deals,” agent Joshua Kusnick said Friday in a statement also released on Twitter. “These guys are not getting calls at all because everything at the top of the market is frozen. It really does trickle down to A-ball, and I have never dealt with anything like this in 15 years.”
For now, the gridlock continues, the staredown between labor and management threatening spring training and perhaps eventually the sport’s labor peace. Hosmer, a 28-year-old first baseman, is believed to have multiple offers worth more than $100 million, including one from the Royals, while Martinez, the consensus best hitter on the market, reportedly had a five-year, $100 million offer from the Boston Red Sox. In addition, Darvish has reportedly had heavy interest from multiple suitors. Yet all three have declined to accept those offers to this point.
In recent weeks, the evidence of discontent from players has continued to mount. The questions is whether a unified front can make a difference.
“I would suggest that testing the will of 1,200 alpha males at the pinnacle of their profession is not a good strategy for 30 men who are bound by a much smaller fraternity,” Van Wagenen wrote. “These 1,200 players have learned first-hand that battles are won through teamwork, and they understand that championships can’t be achieved by individuals. They are won by a group united by a singular focus. Victory at all costs. They are willing to sweat for it; they are willing to sacrifice for it; they are willing to cry for it; and most importantly, they are willing to bleed for it.”