So much for the hope that the arrival of spring could help ease the tension between baseball's owners and its players.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark have welcomed the opening of camps across Florida and Arizona by trading barbs about who, precisely, is to blame for this and that. On Sunday, Manfred used his press conference to defend another tepid free-agent marketplace. He even noted that three of the four teams the union filed a grievance about last year -- the Rays, Pirates, and Athletics -- enjoyed winning seasons.
Rob Manfred: "I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure for how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be."— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 17, 2019
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred points finger at union chief Tony Clark for fueling negativity around free agency/economics talk by singling out A’s, Rays, Pirates and Marlins last year in grievance. That grievance is still pending.— Eric Fisher (@EricFisherSBJ) February 17, 2019
Predictably, Clark was having none of that. He issued this statement on Monday:
While Clark deserves blame for negotiating an unfavorable CBA prior to the 2017 season, Manfred's comments on this subject are misleading.
When the union filed its grievance against four teams (the aforementioned three plus the Marlins), it did so due to concerns about if and how those clubs were using their revenue-sharing allotments. It's true that three of those squads went on to have winning seasons. It's also true that the same three finished within the bottom four in payroll. One can only wonder what would've happened if the A's, Rays, or Pirates would've spent more money on talent -- perhaps they would've combined for more than a single playoff game between them?
To that, Manfred would likely offer that spending doesn't guarantee winning. Again, there's some truth in that declaration, but the assertion falls flat beyond the surface. Just last season, the Red Sox won the World Series after leading the majors in payroll. The hopeless Giants finished second, yet the rest of the top 10 included the Dodgers, Cubs, Nationals, Angels, Yankees, Astros, and Cardinals -- that's each of the last four pennant winners, plus other clubs who either made the postseason or had legitimate playoff aspirations at one point or another.
There are multiple ways to build a good roster, but spending on veteran talent remains the most villainized approach. Teams instead sell their fans on building the "right way," which just so happens to double as the most cost-efficient way. Budget space is not, within itself, inherently valuable -- not unless there's an intent to use it. Otherwise, it benefits only ownership. An unwillingness to spend is part of why baseball is where it is -- perhaps on the verge of its first labor stoppage in decades. League-wide profits have increased 16 years running while the median salary has grown stagnant. Through billion-dollar television deals and publicly financed stadiums, teams have become less reliant upon gate revenue -- their bottom lines are now less dependent on fielding competitive clubs that draw fans.
So, yes, spring training is here, but don't expect the bickering between the league, its owners and its players to stop anytime soon. What they're fighting over is more important than the exhibition season, anyway -- it's the future of the game.