Castellanos: Players-owners relationship gets ‘uncomfortable'

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News

Lakeland, Fla. — Nick Castellanos is normally a fun-loving guy. It takes a fair bit of antagonizing to set him off. But his blood got up pretty good as he watched his friend, former teammate and unsigned free agent J.D. Martinez get dragged through the mud on a recent talk program on MLB Network.

“They were chastising J.D. and making him look like a criminal (for not accepting a contract offer from the Red Sox),” Castellanos said. “After talking to J.D., the highest offer he got was five years and $100 million.”

Castellanos isn’t saying $20 million a year is chump change. And all things being equal, Martinez himself would probably jump at the chance to secure that kind of financial security for his family. But there is a much bigger issue at stake.

“This is my opinion, OK?” he said. “I didn’t go to college and I am not saying my opinion is fact and I am not saying that anybody who believes something different is wrong. But if I am thinking like an owner, this is the year everybody stands together to try and lower the market.

“So that when Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are free agents next year, their contracts become the new highest contract and their numbers and comparables are the new set line.”

In other words, by lowering the bar this offseason with elite free agents like Martinez, Eric Hosmer and Jake Arrieta, the owners would effectively set the bar lower for next year’s much more bountiful free agent class.

The ice make have cracked a bit late Saturday night when the Padres and Hosmer agreed on an eight-year, $144 million deal. Getting eight years would be considered a win for the players.

And that puts the onus on those elite free agents still unsigned not to cave in to what they perceive as a low offer.

“J.D. has a responsibility to hold his ground, so guys coming behind him can get better contracts, as well,” Castellanos said. “It would be very easy to for J.D. to say, ‘I’ll take $100 million and I will never have to work again ever.’ But it’s not about that. It’s about setting the game up for the people coming behind you.”

Castellanos said the financial bar has already been lowered this offseason, citing Todd Frazier – who after producing 27 home runs and 76 RBI with a 3.4 WAR signed a two-year, $17 million contract with the Mets.

“So a guy who hits 45 home runs and knocks in 100-something runs after missing a full month (Martinez) would be the comparable for everyone making $20 million a year,” Castellanos said, explaining the ramifications of Martinez accepting the five-year offer. “And the analytics will say here are the numbers he could have had he had had that extra month.

“So, (the owners can say), ‘Why are we going to give you $100 million if you didn’t produce 45 home runs and 100 RBIs?’”

Castellanos recently agreed to a one-year deal worth $6 million to avoid free agency. Tigers general manager Al Avila told reporters at the winter meetings that they had offered Castellanos a longer-term deal that would have taken him beyond his final three years of arbitration.

That was news to him.

“When I read that they offered me a contract and that I said no, that was the first time I’d heard of it,” he said. “You know how you go fishing, right? You throw a hook in the water and there is no bait on it? You are fishing but are you really trying to catch anything?”

It would be wrong to paint Castellanos as bitter. He’s been a bundle of positive energy since he reported to spring training on Friday. A better way to describe him is, deeply concerned about the state of the game from the business side.

“It’s kind of weird, man,” he said. “It’s definitely an uncomfortable situation that’s starting to brew between Major League Baseball and the players.”

Reduce years of team control?

Castellanos and James McCann serve as the Tigers representatives to the players’ association. Castellanos will be 27 when he becomes a free agent in 2020. McCann will be 30 in his free agent year, 2021.

This free agent freeze-out has been eye-opening for both.

“It’s a complicated situation and a lot of things go into it,” McCann said. “But at the end of the day, it’s disappointing. You look at all the pace of play stuff and we’re trying to make it better for fans and trying to reach new fans, yet we’re not putting our best players on the field.

“Everyone wants to point to the top free agents on the market, but you have a lot of good players that aren’t signed. There are a lot of six- and seven-year veterans who don’t have jobs and they are extremely good baseball players.”

Tigers players can tick off various reasons for why the free agent market has been so glacial: too many teams in rebuilding mode, too many franchise-type players hitting the market in 2019, a far too restrictive collective bargaining agreement, and the impact of analytics.

Tigers pitcher Alex Wilson, who will be 33 in his free agent year (2020) – which means in this current climate he will likely finish his career on a series of short-term deals -- said the combination of a smaller market for free agents and the emergence of analytics in negotiations has created a different kind of collusion.

“If the analytics department is doing the talking, then that sets the market for everybody,” he said. “And now you have so many teams rebuilding, your market is automatically cut by seven or eight teams. Then it gets cut again by another dozen or so teams who don’t really need that right-fielder or that starting pitcher.

“So you get down to two or three teams. And if they all set your value according to what the analytics department says, well, is that fair to us? Because at that point, teams aren’t technically talking to each other and colluding, but they are still using the same pot of information.”

The players know, too, that they took a beating in the last CBA negotiations. Their emphasis was more on quality of life issues like more days off in the season, more nutritional food in the clubhouse, more room on the buses and planes, while the owners were effectively creating a hard-cap on salaries with a restrictive competitive balance tax.

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"I think there are a lot of questions (among the players) right now,” Wilson said. “And a lot of realization about maybe what we bargained for we wish we wouldn’t have now. But in the past, you got rewarded for getting to be a free agent. Now, it’s almost like guys are getting penalized.”

What Wilson and others think needs to happen when the next CBA is negotiated after 2021 is that owners will have to give up a couple of years of control. Let players seek free agency after four years instead of six.

“If that’s going to be the case, if you are going to be old at 30 in baseball, then let us hit arbitration after two years and free agency after four,” Wilson said. “That’s one of the things moving forward we’re going to have to look at.

“Listen, everybody is still, on the whole, getting paid pretty well. But the owners realize they have the edge right now…But I think it’s bad for baseball, personally. People pay to see the big-name guys on the field and if these big-name guys aren’t playing, it’s going to come back to haunt everybody, not just free agents.”

'Going to be a rough one'

Suffice to say, the owners have got the players’ attention now, and the next round of bargaining could get chippy.

“It’s going to be a rough one,” Wilson said. “There is going to have to be a budge from the owners’ side. We need these (unsigned free agents) out there playing. I don’t care what the market says or anything else. At some point, you have to at least budge enough to meet in the middle.”

Castellanos could be in the same boat in 2020 as Hosmer was — still in his 20s, and looking for a deal longer than six years.

“It’s up to the players,” Castellanos said. “If we want to start having the mentality that we care, if we all care, then we would have the most power.”

Pitchers and catchers reported on time this week and position players will convene as scheduled Sunday. The players’ association quickly shot down speculation of any type of player protest over the slow-moving market. The business-side battle will continue, but for now, it will be fought behind the scenes.

“The biggest thing about professional baseball, especially at the big-league level, there is a business side and there is a game side,” McCann said. “And you can’t let them intersect. If you do, you are in trouble. The minute you start letting a front office person dictate the way you feel about yourself as a player, you are going to fail.

“Nothing against anybody, but as a player, you try to play as best as you can, make as much money as you can, and the people who are paying you want you to play well but not pay you the same.”

Twitter @mccosky