By Wednesday afternoon, pitchers and catchers will have reported to 29 of the 30 major league baseball spring training camps. (For some reason, the Atlanta Braves don’t report until Feb. 15).
And yet, Bryce Harper, who had two 1.000+ OPS seasons before his 25th birthday, does not have a job.
Neither does Manny Machado, an extraordinary infielder who has averaged 35 home runs in each of his last four seasons.
Dallas Keuchel, a Cy Young Award winner three years ago, does not have a job. Craig Kimbrel, who led the NL in saves for four straight seasons and was the closer for the defending World Champion Boston Red Sox, does not have a job. Adam Jones does not have a job, nor does Mike Moustakas or Gio Gonzalez.
No team can seem to find a spot for Doug Fister or Marwin Gonzalez, or Yangervis Solarte or Adam Warren.
In all, some 78 free agents, most of them bona fide, solid major league ballplayers and quite a few who are a lot better than that, remain unsigned with Opening Day barely six weeks away.
Something is very wrong about that.
And what’s even more wrong is the fact that to a lot of fans, this serves the players right.
They’re getting paid millions of dollars to play a game. They got it easy. I would do it for nothing, fans will argue.
First of all, no you wouldn’t. And second of all, if you would, you’re an idiot.
You would think that at this point in our development as a civilization, it would no longer be necessary to explain to folks that major league baseball bears no resemblance to the game you and I played in the schoolyard as a kid.
And you would think that despite the size of the paychecks, fans would understand that at their essence, ballplayers are the hired help, just like you and me, who work at the pleasure of much wealthier and more powerful men and corporations and whose careers can be ended easily, by an injury or on a whim.
And then, there’s the most obvious point of all: The players are the only reason you go to the ballpark or plunk your butt down in front of the flat-screen or buy the jerseys, the hats and the signed baseballs in the first place.
The next time I see someone at Yankee Stadium wearing a Hal Steinbrenner model game-worn blazer will be the first.
And yet, fewer fans seem to get upset at owners, who rake in cash by the barrel thanks to ticket and merchandise sales, TV rights fees and cable subscriptions, than at the players, who actually go out and play the game.
That, to me, makes less sense than Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and some of their cohorts still looking for jobs.
To some extent, there is a jealousy factor involved; I mean, who wouldn’t want to get rich and famous playing baseball for a living rather than struggling to make ends meet at some boring office or factory job?
And there is the natural tendency for all of us to focus on long-term, big money free agent deals that failed rather than those that succeeded. We tend to remember the fiascoes such as Bobby Bonilla, Jason Bay and Jacoby Ellsbury rather than, say, the 10-year deal the Yankees gave Derek Jeter in 2000 that worked out well for everyone, or the original seven-year deal that went to CC Sabathia and immediately brought back a World Championship.
And few of us seem to have the patience to take a look at how much – or more accurately – how little of their burgeoning revenues many team owners put back into payroll. Even the Yankees, who invest a more than generous $200 million-plus on players practically every season, spend only about a third of the revenue the team generates on their roster.
Yet that seems to inflame fans less than when a player signs for big money and fails to perform up to expectations. Or, worse, has the nerve to get hurt.
Say what you will about Ellsbury, and everyone knows I have, but most of his injuries have been fairly incurred in the course of playing the game hard. He may take longer than some would like to come back from them, but none of us can feel the other guy’s pain nor gauge how long anyone else’s recovery should be.
All we seem to focus on is the guy is getting paid a lot of money and not playing. Rarely do we stop to think about how much more the owners are making, without ever playing or taking a physical risk of any kind.
Doesn’t seem quite fair.
The truth is, Major League Baseball is a very difficult sport to excel at and it’s even harder to last long enough in the league to qualify for the bonanza of free agency. Yeah, there’s big money down the road, but you’ve got to get there first. Why do you think Kyler Murray chose the NFL over MLB?
And while MLB owners and players don’t labor under the burden of the hard salary cap of the NBA or the NFL, many teams use the luxury tax threshold as if it is a hard cap. All but four teams – The Red Sox, Dodgers, Yankees and Cubs – are well below the $206 million luxury tax threshold with no intention of going over it.
Many of those teams could afford to add Harper or Machado and remain under the line. Some could add Harper AND Machado. And all could be signing many of the other unemployed free agents with no fear of having to pay into the revenue-sharing pool.
And yet, 16 teams have yet to sign a free agent this winter. Eleven teams have payrolls below $100 million. Eight teams lost at least 95 games, and 10, fully one-third of the league, finished more than 20 games out of first.
And on the week pitchers and catchers reported to 29 spring training camps around the country, only one player, Patrick Corbin, had signed a deal for more than $100 million.
Call it collusion, call it tanking, or call it incentivized losing. Whatever term you put on it, call it very, very wrong.
But whatever you call it, don’t pin the blame on the players.
Without them, there is no game.