BRADENTON, Fla. — Tyler Clippard wore a black jersey with a white players’ union logo and pitched hitless ball for two innings against amateurs in the green shirts of the East Japan Railway Company.
He had the poorest personal results of his nine major league seasons, yet ended the year with a celebration in the clubhouse of the World Series champion Houston Astros. This is not how the 33-year-old right-hander envisioned spring training.
"We know that my year last year was a bad year, but at the end of the day how bad was it? And it wasn’t as bad as some that got significant contracts," he said Tuesday after appearing in the first of two exhibition games for free agents scheduled for this week at the IMG Academy.
Thirty-eight players have attended the camp since workouts started Feb. 14. They wonder why they are on the outside while several teams have jettisoned veterans to fill a higher percentage of their roster spots with lower-salaried youth.
The players’ association filed a grievance Friday against the Miami Marlins, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates and Tampa Bay Rays, accusing the teams of failing to appropriately spend revenue-sharing money.
"Isn’t the goal to win the World Series every year? I think every team should want to win the World Series every year," 35-year-old left-hander Tom Gorzelanny said. "You’re not trying to go out there and say I’d rather save money than win games."
Two players agreed to minor league deals after attending camp: right-hander Carlos Torres with Cleveland and left-hander Tommy Layne with Boston. First baseman Mike Napoli had been on the roster for the exhibition, but left for Arizona and a physical needed to finalize a minor league contract with the Indians. Second baseman Neil Walker arrived this week.
This camp is similar to the one run by the union at Homestead, Florida, following the end of the 1994-95 strike. Dave Gallagher attended then as a player and signed with Philadelphia. Now he is a coach under manager Bo Porter.
"They start to lose hope," he said. "And it’s a little bit humiliating."
The starting lineup included centre fielder Alejandro De Aza, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, designated hitter Juan Francisco, first baseman Tyler Moore, right fielder Luke Scott, third baseman Chris Johnson, shortstop Omar Infante, left fielder Nolan Reimould and second baseman Tyler Ladendorf. The free agents won 2-0 in five innings, allowing just one hit. Several scouts looked on from the small stands, which had three rows of blue seats and nine rows of metal bleachers.
"It’s not like anybody here that I’ve talked to is here waiting for a 10-year deal or a five-year deal. These are guys just waiting to get a job," said the 32-year-old Saltalamacchia, who went 1 for 25 for Toronto last season.
"I’ve called six or seven teams myself. My agent’s called teams and we’ve told them, hey, I’ll go to Triple-A. I’ll go to Double-A. I just want to play. Let me be an insurance policy."
"It’s been absolutely remarkable to me some of the articles that I have seen suggesting that veteran leadership and a veteran presence is overvalued and doesn’t have what it used to have," said union head Tony Clark, a former All-Star first baseman. "That’s disheartening, to believe that that is the philosophy of some of those making personnel decisions."
Gorzelanny is trying to prove he’s healthy after hurting his pitching shoulder in spring training last year and spending the season in the New York Mets’ minor league system. Clippard has turned down minor league offers, saying he considers himself a big leaguer and deserves a spot on a 40-man roster.
Walker remains confident, coming off a decent season when he hit .265 with 14 homers and 49 RBIs for the Mets and Milwaukee.
"Certainly going into this off-season I didn’t envision myself at this time of the year not having a team to play for," he said. "I’ve always played at a high level, so I’ve kind of just assumed that at least by late January, early February that I would be having serious discussions with somebody, and that hasn’t happened yet."
Clark said only Boston and Washington project to be over the luxury-tax threshold level this year.
Baseball’s labour contract set restraints on signing bonuses for draft picks starting in 2012 and for international amateurs beginning last summer. The changes last summer, which included steeper penalties for teams exceeding the luxury tax threshold by more than $40 million, coincided with more teams deciding to rebuild their rosters with youth.
Clark said it would have been hard to anticipate unless "had we known that there was going to be upward of a third of the league that may not be as interested in being the last in team standings and therefore wouldn’t value experience on some level."