Lakeland, Fla. — James McCann listened, and spoke, Tuesday during a nearly two-hour labor meeting in the Tigers clubhouse.
The Tigers catcher and co-player representative wonders along with a few hundred colleagues, not to mention Major League Baseball Players Association chief Tony Clark, why so many unemployed big-leaguers are waiting for phone calls. Or contracts. Or both.
“When some of the best players in the world are out of jobs, something’s wrong,” McCann said, referring to a score of unsigned free agents that appear to be either victims of a chilly market, or, the union suggests, something more sinister.
Jake Arrieta, Mike Moustakas, Alex Cobb, and Lance Lynn are among those waiting for offers they and their agents believe are worthwhile.
McCann, who teams with Nick Castellanos as the Tigers’ dual player reps, wonders why owners have suddenly turned so sour on offering contracts that once were commonplace on the big-league marketplace.
Economics is an honorable institution and can be part of an adult conversation, the players say. But they wonder if there isn’t a wider, more toxic, movement at work as teams scale back payrolls and put bottom-line ink ahead of competitiveness.
“If you go back and look at the history of the game,” McCann said, “there’s always been a focus on teams bettering themselves. What’s going on right now with free agents is, teams are not bettering themselves.”
Clark, the former Tigers first baseman who now heads the MLBPA, stopped Tuesday at Lakeland as part of his tour of big-league camps. The discussions at each stop have been unlike any in recent years as baseball’s marketplace has turned frosty even as the game enjoys record revenues.
“It has been different — historically different,” Clark said. “Guys are asking a lot of questions, which is fantastic.”
What’s missing are answers that Clark and his union members might find reassuring. Namely, that the market is in fact functioning freely, minus any conspiracy by owners to back away from free agents who in previous years almost certainly would by now have been gobbled up and signed to lucrative deals.
“It begs the question,” Clark said, “as to whether or not there is interest by 30 teams to be the last team standing (World Series champion).”
Clark conceded there is a fair question to be asked: When owners, of their own volition, decided to lavish expensive, long-term deals on players, are they not now entitled to conclude some of those investments weren’t practical? That a new market exists, where youth and “team-control” and dollars they believe need to be spent more efficiently are now the wiser model?
Clark acknowledged that honest motives could be at work, but asked: “Why is the phone not ringing altogether?”
Clark said the collective bargaining agreement between owners and players was “predicated on competitive balance,” but that “now we’re in a climate” opposed to the idea of winning championships.
He gave the Tigers something of a nod as a rebuilding club that has had a tradition of spending lavishly but now faces a rebuilding cycle, which Clark said is appreciated with the straits in which some clubs validly find themselves.
“Detroit is in an interesting position,” Clark said, “but to have the top one-third of teams” backing away from investing in difference-making free agents, he suggested, implied something other than pure economics was at work with baseball’s owners.
“It’s a competitive integrity issue,” Clark said. “We’ve never seen this before.”
The current CBA extends through the 2021 season. For now, Clark said, dialogue will continue, with the hope business will get back to normal for celebrity players, as well as for those with lesser profiles.