Spring training camps open next week, and while Major League Baseball would never say it, the industry badly needs a better season than last year.
There were highlights, to be sure — there always are — but the problems were obvious to all: fewer fans in the seats and more hopeless teams than ever. The malaise has continued deep into the off-season, with more than 100 free agents still unsigned, including the marquee stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.
On Wednesday, at least, it was fun to have some on-field news to debate. The commissioner’s office and the players’ association traded proposals last month that could lead to several significant rule changes. The designated hitter might be coming to the National League, although probably not until 2020. Pitchers might be required to face at least three batters. Rosters might be expanded to 26 in the regular season but reduced to a maximum of 28 in September.
Those possibilities and more — reported by The Athletic and ESPN — were confirmed on Wednesday by multiple officials with the league and the union who were not authorized to speak publicly about continuing negotiations. Whatever comes from the proposals, it is nice to see the sides talking, undercutting the perception that a skeptical union was simply freezing out Commissioner Rob Manfred.
“The players are always looking to find ways to streamline the game to make it more competitive and to put a better product for fans on the field,” said Chris Iannetta, the veteran catcher for the Colorado Rockies, in a telephone interview. “What we’re against is making wholesale changes we don’t feel are going to be meaningful.”
There is incentive for the players to engage Manfred, because the collective bargaining agreement, which runs through 2021, gives him the right to unilaterally impose some ideas he proposed last year, including a 20-second pitch clock. But Iannetta, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, said the players’ primary objective was to create a sport in which more teams actively try to win.
Naturally, when teams shrug at the free-agent market, it manifests itself in salaries below players’ expectations. But the widespread rebuilding phenomenon — or tanking, as some call it — resulted in eight teams with at least 95 losses last season, the most in history. It was no coincidence that attendance also dropped by more than three million fans, falling below 70 million for the first time since 2003.
“The numbers are very telling, and I think it’s derived from the competitiveness of the individual teams,” Iannetta said. “There’s teams that can become much more competitive just from tapping into the talent pool that’s available on the free-agent market right now, and not being willing to do that should be alarming to everybody.
“It’s easy to say, ‘We’re going to be the Cubs or the Astros,’ but that’s a very difficult thing to do — and keep in mind the Cubs and Astros used veteran talent to groom those players, and when it was time to win, they significantly added veteran players.”
Both sides offer examples of the wisdom or folly of spending big on free agents. The Boston Red Sox stormed past the luxury-tax threshold — which most teams see as a de facto salary cap — and signed designated hitter J.D. Martinez to a five-year, $110 million contract last February. Martinez hit .330 with 43 homers and led the Red Sox to the World Series title.
But what about the Baltimore Orioles? They signed a free-agent starter, Alex Cobb, to a four-year, $57 million contract last spring, only to watch him go 5-15 with a 4.90 E.R.A. The team set a franchise record for losses, with 115. Cobb was signed as a rotation stabilizer, not a star, but the move signaled the Orioles’ intentions to marginally improve. It turned out to be another cautionary tale.
“Teams used to pay big money for mediocrity, for the average player,” said Steve Phillips, the former Mets general manager and a host on MLB Network Radio. “And now they’re not willing to do that, because you can find close to average with a young guy who’s not going to cost you money.”
Iannetta, in the second season of a two-year, $8.5 million deal, sits squarely in baseball’s middle class. He said the union cares equally about the welfare of all members — from stars to rookies — and said players were frustrated by a system that squeezes out qualified veterans while also keeping elite prospects (think Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays) in the minors to manipulate their service time and keep their price low.
As it stands, the worst teams get the best draft picks and the most money to spend on amateur talent. The Astros and the Cubs showed that weathering years of struggle can help lead to sustained success — but, of course, not all rebuilding teams will win big.
In their proposal to the owners, the players have advocated a system that would incentivize winning: lower draft position for perennial losers, better draft position for low-revenue teams that win, and so on.
“One thing that’s going come up in the next few years is: ‘Oh, this is all about dollars and cents; this is all about players being greedy and wanting more,’ and that’s not the case,” Iannetta said. “We play a game our whole lives and we work our butts off, and we want to compete against the best — and when the best isn’t out there on the field, it doesn’t feel right.
“A lot of my colleagues looking for jobs are better than players on rosters right now, and that’s not fair,” he added. “That’s not putting the best product on the field. There’s talent right now that’s not being utilized, for whatever reason. And it’s not fair to the fans that are spending their money, either.”
Phillips, who was Mets’ general manager from 1997 to 2003, said impulsive owners once pushed salaries higher and higher by basing free-agent decisions largely on emotion. Now, he said, more and more owners defer to general managers who rely increasingly on analytics. Players and their agents, perhaps, must recognize and adapt to this new world.
But something seems off when an industry that boasts record revenues suddenly gets smart, all at the same time. The owners would seem to be far too canny to collude against players as they did in the 1980s. But whether it’s groupthink or a flawed system, something needs to change to revive the sport.
After a troubling regular season and another frigid off-season, the players — those with jobs, anyway — will soon return to work. They’ll have a lot on their minds.
“It’s a critical point,” Iannetta said. “We need to really be cognizant of putting the right ideas first and the right values first — and that’s maintaining the competitive nature and the free-market system and going from there.”
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