Prominent baseball agent suggests spring training boycott
NEW YORK — A prominent baseball agent said players are angered over the slow free-agent market and suggested they consider boycotting spring training.
Brodie Van Wagenen, co-head of CAA Baseball, floated the idea in a statement released Friday, less than two weeks before spring training workouts are to start in Florida and Arizona. He also raised the possibility of a collusion grievance, as did another agent, Seth Levinson of Aces.
"The players are upset. No, they are outraged. Players in the midst of long-term contracts are as frustrated as those still seeking employment," Van Wagenen said. "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."
J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Alex Cobb, Greg Holland and Lance Lynn remain among the dozens of unsigned free agents.
"A boycott of spring training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn't change. 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."
CAA represents more than 150 baseball players, including Robinson Cano, Yoenis Cespedes, Buster Posey, Shohei Ohtani, Adam Jones, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard.
Van Wagenen's free agents this offseason include Todd Frazier. Van Wagenen said he chose to speak out now because spring training was approaching.
"The sentiment that I'm hearing from players is that something radical may be necessary to show the other side there is unity and strength in in their frustration," he said in a telephone interview.
Spring training workouts begin Feb. 14, but participation is voluntary until the mandatory reporting date on Feb. 24 — the day after major league spring training games are to start.
Levinson praised Van Wagenen and agreed with his conclusions.
"It is disconcerting, and disheartening for clubs that are awash in revenue and or are fully capable of improving its product to choose to do otherwise," he said. "Further, it is deeply troubling to encounter that almost all clubs are operating in a strangely similar fashion. There are no coincidences in a monopoly."
Large-market teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees, are cutting payrolls to get under the $197 million threshold for luxury tax payrolls.
"Every market's different. There's different players, different quality of players, different GMs, different decisions, new basic agreement, different agents who have particular prominence in a particular market in terms of who they represent," Commissioner Rob Manfred said Thursday. "Those factors and probably others that I can't tick off the top of my head have combined to produce a particular market this year. Just like there's been some markets where the lid got blown off in terms of player salary growth, I think I can honestly suggest that occasionally you're going to have some that are a little different, not quite as robust."
New York Mets general manager Sandy Alderson, speaking to fans at Citi Field on Thursday, said analytics contributed to the slow pace of negotiations.
"Big data is the reason we've seen so little movement in the free-agent market, because as data becomes more pervasive in the game, as it has, it tends to narrow the range of different evaluations," he said. "The evaluations become much uniform."
The average salary, according to the players' association, rose 3.3 percent last year to nearly $4.1 million following an increase of just 0.35 percent in 2016, the lowest rise since 2004. The new collective bargaining agreement, the first since Tony Clark succeeded Michael Weiner as union head, added surtaxes to the competitive-balance tax and additional penalties for high payrolls, including lesser choices in the amateur draft.
"The CBT is designed to be a restraint on the spending of high-payroll clubs," Manfred said. "I think that the system, without singling out the CBT, actually is working pretty well in the sense that the standard deviation of our payrolls that are being projected next year has actually gone down significantly, suggesting that our payrolls are more compressed, top-down, the bottom-up, which we feel is important in terms of preserving the competitive balance in the game."
Clark issued a statement that did not address a boycott or a grievance.
"For decades free agency has been the cornerstone of baseball's economic system and has benefited players and the game alike," he said. "Each time it has been attacked, players, their representatives and the association have united to defend it. That will never change."
Baseball has enjoyed labor peace since a 7½-month strike in 1994-95 led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years, and the labor contract runs through the 2021 season.
The players' association won three collusion grievances against the clubs for behavior toward free agents following the 1985-87 seasons, cases management settled for $280 million. Van Wagenen, a former Stanford baseball player, says current behavior by teams "feels coordinated, rightly or wrongly."
"Many club presidents and general managers with whom we negotiate with are frustrated with the lack of funds to sign the plethora of good players still available, raising further suspicion of institutional influence over the spending," he said. "Even the algorithms that have helped determine player salaries in recent years are suggesting dramatically higher values than owners appear willing to spend."