“There is a rising tide among players for radical change,” Van Wagenen wrote. “A fight is brewing. And it may begin with one, maybe two, and perhaps 1,200 willing to follow. A boycott of spring training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change.”
All of this prompted Major League Baseball to lob a grenade at the union Tuesday afternoon. Baseball’s statement stressed that, while teams were committed to winning, “it has always been true that clubs go through cyclical, multiyear strategies” to do so.
“It is common at this point in the calendar to have large numbers of free agents unsigned,” the statement continued. “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.”
The league did not say which players had received nine-figure offers, though various reports have said that Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez have gotten them. Both players are represented by the agent Scott Boras, who also represents the unsigned Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas, Greg Holland, Carlos Gomez and Carlos Gonzalez.
Boras has a long history of securing lucrative deals for his clients, and of waiting for teams to provide them. He recently told The Times that too many owners were deliberately trying to lose, taking advantage of a collective bargaining agreement that gives the worst teams the most money to spend on amateur talent while imposing penalties for payrolls over $197 million.
“It has created an incentive to lose, and we now have a process where teams are not seeking competitiveness and therefore they’re not seeking players to be competitive,” Boras said.
Three times in the 1980s, owners were found to be guilty of colluding against free agents, essentially robbing players of nearly $300 million. Suspicions of collusion are again bubbling just beneath the surface, and while many free agents have switched teams this winter, only one has signed for more than three years: Lorenzo Cain, who left the Kansas City Royals for a five-year, $80 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers.
The landscape of front offices is changing across baseball, as owners are increasingly relying on bright, young executives who are well-versed in analytics. Few, if any, statistical models would recommend extravagant salaries for players whose performance is likely to decline.
Players need six years of service time to reach free agency, and the union could push to reduce that requirement in hopes that the most coveted players get the most money. But the collective bargaining agreement runs through 2021, limiting the union’s short-term options. The league has reopened the C.B.A. to strengthen the drug program, but not to adjust the game’s financial structure.
Of course, some players do perform well after free agency, like Max Scherzer, a Boras client who has won two Cy Young Awards in the three seasons since the Washington Nationals gave him a seven-year, $210 million contract.
Yet many others have been busts, including Carl Crawford, who did not play last season but collected $21.9 million from the Los Angeles Dodgers to finish a seven-year, $142 million deal he got from the Boston Red Sox. Josh Hamilton has not played since 2015, but the Los Angeles Angels paid him $26.41 million last season to finish the five-year, $125 million contract they gave him after the 2012 season. (The Angels had traded Hamilton to Texas in 2015.)
Last season seemed to underscore the pre-eminence of younger players. None of the top seven finishers in 2017 Most Valuable Player Award balloting, in either league, have ever been free agents. Only two players had even accumulated enough service time to be eligible for free agency, and both — Giancarlo Stanton and Joey Votto — had signed long-term deals before hitting the open market.
This market still has players who could clearly help teams; a rotation of Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, Lance Lynn and Jason Vargas would win a lot of games. But those players and many others remain unsigned, and their union is furious — but powerless to do much about it.