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Madden: The players destroyed free agency and now only a real cap can get baseball back on track


Here we are, two weeks away from pitchers and catchers, and there are 120 or so free agents out there still unsigned, including Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, Adam Jones, Mike Moustakas and Craig Kimbrel.

Of the 30 clubs, 23 haven’t even signed a free agent to a contract longer than two years. Each successive day the second straight baseball free agent winter freeze persists, the moaning from the players grows louder.

“It seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players,” complained Evan Longoria last week. “We are less than a month from the start of spring and once again our biggest stars remain unsigned. Such a shame.”

“It’s really weird. Two of the best players in the game and teams have very little interest in them from what I hear,” echoed Kris Bryant. “Not enough teams are trying to be competitive.”

Much as they may hate to hear this, the players have only themselves to blame for essentially destroying free agency — which was Marvin Miller’s Holy Grail in establishing the strongest union in all of professional sports. All you have to do is listen to the players’ cries about how miserable it is to be a free agent today, sitting by a phone that never rings, when nobody is spending any money.

Bryce Harper and dozens of others are still waiting ... (Nick Wass / AP)

Scott Boras and Dan Lozano, the respective agents for Harper and Machado, want to know why no one is offering anything close to the 10-year/$350 million deals they were expecting for their clients? It ain’t easy when you start out with the 5-6 biggest market teams, the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, Giants and Mets out of the bidding for fears of either exceeding the luxury tax threshold or being repeat offenders, resulting in far greater tax penalties (as in the case of the Red Sox, who will pay 30% for exceeding the luxury tax threshold for the second straight year and an additional 12% on every dollar over $226 million. Plus, they drop 10 picks in the draft). You want to know why they’re not re-signing Kimbrel and are willing to defend their world championship with two unprovens, Matt Barnes and Ryan Brasier as their closer? That’s why!

At the same time you have smaller and middle market teams like the Indians, Pirates, Marlins, Royals, A’s, all of whom receive revenue sharing, either cutting payroll, or flat out tanking.

In all his fiercely fought labor negotiations Miller had with the owners in the ’70s and ’80s, he was steadfast in refusing to agree to anything that would chip away at the foundation of free agency, which he won for the players through an arbitration decision in 1975. It was always Miller’s contention that free agency had to be unencumbered and to put any sort of financial constraints on the large market teams would undermine the entire process.

Marvin Miller
Marvin Miller (AP)

But that is exactly what’s happened with this new collective bargaining agreement in which onerous tax rates of 20% are imposed for teams exceeding the luxury tax threshold the first time, 30% the second time and 50% the third time plus additional taxes for going over the $226 million and $246 million thresholds. Throw in the additional penalties of loss of draft picks and international signing money and, voila! Marvin Miller’s free agency could not be more encumbered.

Making matters worse for the players, the idea of revenue sharing creating more competitive balance in baseball hasn’t worked either. For the most part, the teams getting revenue sharing aren’t spending it on players, but, rather, putting it into player development (or in their pockets).

It seems when the players and their union chief Tony Clark were negotiating the CBA two years ago, they were more concerned about amenity issues – more days off, starting times of getaway games, additional compensation for participating in club-sanctioned events – while taking their eye off the ball on the big picture economic issues. Now they will have to live with this system for two more years, and good luck putting the free agency genie back in the bottle.

Marvin Miller is recoiling up there in union heaven. His once mighty union has managed to negotiate what constitutes a salary cap, and the only way to restore a measure of what free agency used to be is to now negotiate a real cap in which there would at least have to be a minimum payroll floor.


‘Tis the season of the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Miracle Mets and Tuesday night at the Thurman Munson Dinner, original Met Ed Kranepool will be honored, with his ’69 teammate Ron Swoboda doing the presenting. There are going to be at least three books out this year on the ’69 Mets, as well as a documentary on Tom Seaver, directed by Ed Burns. A central theme in all of these appears to be the Met players’ devotion to Gil Hodges to this day. “The way Gil balanced our roster was unbelievable,” said Kranepool. “Only four guys – Cleon (Jones), Buddy (Harrelson), (Tommy) Agee and (Jerry) Grote played every day. All the rest of us were platooned. You weren’t happy about sitting down, especially when you’d just had a good game, but you always understood where you stood with Gil.” Said Swoboda, of the ’69 Mets manager and multi-All-Star first baseman with the Dodgers: “I don’t think Gil made a wrong move all year. He just had the pulse of the locker room.” Hodges will be eligible once more for the Hall of Fame 2020. ... Perhaps the biggest insult of all this winter for those 120 free agents still looking for jobs was the Red Sox’s signing of thrice-suspended drug cheat Jenrry Mejia, who has been out of baseball since 2015. ... At the same time, you have to wonder what took the Braves so long to re-sign Nick Markakis, coming off one of his best seasons (.297/.366/.440 with 14 HR, 43 doubles and 93 RBI) and whose veteran clubhouse leadership was invaluable last year.