FORT MYERS, Fla. — Nearly two full weeks into spring training, dozens of accomplished free agents around the major leagues are still unsigned.
There’s a new rule limiting visits to the mound, too, creating at least some early confusion about how to keep track.
So while their collective bargaining agreement runs through four more seasons, players have been expressing more frustration with owners lately than usual during an off-season marked by increased tension between the sides.
"The goal of collective bargaining is not labour peace. It’s a fair and equitable deal. Fifteen months in, we’re seeing things that we’ve never seen before, and that raises concerns," union leader Tony Clark said. "We’ll have to figure out in the near term and in the longer term how those concerns can be addressed, because invariably if they are affecting the industry adversely, everybody should have that concern."
Clark began his annual tour of camps on Saturday with Boston. Clark said after the meeting in the Red Sox clubhouse that the union’s special training camp for free agents in Bradenton will stay open indefinitely. About one-third of the 166 players who exercised free agency rights last November have not reached a contract agreement, including stars like starting pitcher Jake Arrieta and third baseman Mike Moustakas.
Signings have begun to pick up over the past week, though. Clark acknowledged not every player will find a team.
"We’d love everybody to be signed," he said. "But the truth is at the end of every off-season, in every year you go back to as far back as I can recall, there are always guys who are at home at the end of the off-season. The key is going to be at the end of this one, seeing where we are and perhaps if there’s an explanation as to why, and then determine based on that explanation, assuming there is one or there isn’t one, try to appreciate what the next steps might look like."
Major League Baseball, in a statement earlier this month, attributed the amount of unsigned players to a misread of the marketplace and denied any deliberate attempt at fielding noncompetitive clubs.
"In baseball, it has always been true that clubs go through cyclical, multiyear strategies directed at winning," the MLB statement read.
Clark didn’t directly answer a question about whether charges of collusion are founded. He said "everything’s worthy of more discussion" on the subject of a potential tanking tax or a payroll floor for a future collective bargaining agreement. Clark cited the amount of teams with payrolls nowhere near the competitive balance tax threshold of $197 million as a reason for the union’s dissatisfaction with the winter.
"If teams aren’t competing, despite the fact that foundation for the system is such that every team is supposed to, that’s a problem," Clark said. "And if it’s happening to the extreme that we’re seeing now and that’s the new norm, that’s a problem."
For the moment, the biggest challenge for managers, coaches and players will be sorting out the pace-of-play rule that generally limits mound visits without a pitching change to six per nine-inning game.
"We’re working on it, but it’s a lot more complicated than people think," Red Sox manager Alex Cora said.
For example: The third baseman might come to the mound to settle a pitcher or talk to him about strategy for defending a bunt. That would count as one visit, according to the new rule. Cora said he’s told his infielders to stay away and avoid the potential problem.
Visits to the mound have increased in recent years in part because teams are trying to defend sign stealing in an era with more high-definition cameras at the ballparks. The runner on second base used to be the chief vehicle for such subterfuge.
"No matter how much you try to anticipate how it’s going to affect the game, it doesn’t always end up the way you had anticipated," Clark said, adding: "Guys have a lot of concerns, but we are hopeful that at some level, the changes and the result of those changes on the games themselves can be mitigated so we’re not talking about pace of game as much as everyone’s talking about the fantastic players on the field."
Said Clark: "You won’t find any player in any clubhouse that has an interest in playing 3 1/2- or four-hour games. They want to play the type of games that fans enjoy seeing. They want to play the type of games that fans are crisp and excitable."