In some palm-treed parts of the country, Major League Baseball’s 2018 Spring Training is underway in earnest. This is normally one of the most anticipated times of the year, with fans who have had to make do tracking the winter’s transactions getting to see something akin to real baseball again, and the excitement always coalesces around the players who have found new homes, who might provide their teams with the needed extra magic. Even batting practice is fun when Shohei Ohtani’s taking it.
This February, though, there’s a dour note to the proceedings. Aside from a few major moves—Ohtani to the Angels, the reigning National League MVP Giancarlo Stanton traded to the Yankees—the offseason has been defined by a puzzling inaction. Far more free agents than usual remain unsigned, including numerous All-Stars coming off excellent years. The list of those currently out of work is long enough that the players’ union is running its own satellite spring training, in Bradenton, Florida, allowing those still awaiting the call to keep their skills sharp.
The reasons for the spending stalemate are the subject of heated debate. Earlier this month, Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLB Players Association, released a statement condemning what in the union’s view were clubs more concerned with pocketing profits than fielding competitive teams. “This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom,” Clark wrote. “This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.” MLB was quick to defend itself, pinning the blame on avaricious agents: “It is the responsibility of players’ agents to value their clients in a constantly changing free-agent market based on factors such as positional demand, advanced analytics, and the impact of the new Basic Agreement [which imposes steep luxury-tax penalties for crossing a certain spending threshold].”