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OC Register: Alexander: The older you are, the colder MLB’s Free Agent Freeze II is


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Charlie Finley was way ahead of his time, evidently.

The innovative, eccentric owner of the Oakland A’s, who died in 1996, was the first owner to lose a free agent (Catfish Hunter to the Yankees in the winter of ’74). He was the first to conduct a fire sale when true free agency arrived in 1976, trading Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman to Baltimore during spring training and then attempting to sell Joe Rudi, Rollie Fingers and Vida Blue in cash transactions.

The commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, blocked them “in the best interests of baseball.” Whatever happened to that precedent?

Finley had another idea that didn’t get much traction from his fellow owners – maybe because he was considered the crazy uncle nobody listened to – but the echoes of it seem to be rattling around today’s depressed free agent market.

His idea? Full free agency for everybody. Get rid of the reserve system and put everyone on one-year contracts, and at the end of every season the law of supply and demand regulates the market.

It was genius. The players, clamoring for the freedom of the open market, would have had to agree, and Players Association leader Marvin Miller noted years later in an interview with the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro that it would have seemed “better for the players than it was, and not nearly as good as it turned out. And I think if the owners could turn back the clock, look at this with a clear eye, they might see things different, too. Thankfully they didn’t.”

No, but a new crop of owners and executives might have figured out how to guide the system back toward short-term deals. Look at the list of this year’s class of free agents on MLBTradeRumors.com and see if you spot a pattern.

A total of 257 players filed at the beginning of the offseason. As of Friday afternoon, 48 had not yet signed, an eclectic mixture of guys who can help a club, guys who are hanging on and guys who at best should get minor-league contracts (as Ervin Santana did from the Chicago White Sox on Friday).

Of the remaining 209, 34 have received multi-year contracts. Considering that most of the still-unsigned players will be lucky to get a year if they get anything, this means that maybe 15 percent, tops, of this winter’s free agents will have received deals covering two years or more.

And there is a pattern within the pattern. With the significant exception of 26-year-old Bryce Harper, who is still waiting for a 10-year deal, and 29-year-olds Jose Iglesias, Casey Kelly and Brad Miller, everyone on that unsigned list is on the north side of 30. And of those 35 multi-year deals, 22 of them are two-year contracts … and 21 of those went to players 30 or older.

Let’s stipulate now that there will be no reprise any time soon of Albert Pujols’ 10-year contract, which he signed just before he turned 32 and is now an albatross at age 39. That said, shouldn’t there be a middle ground?

“I think there’s this thinking that once you get to be 31, 32 years old, your talent is going to drop off,” agent Larry Reynolds said a year ago. “You know, I strongly disagree with that.

“I’ve witnessed firsthand a guy like Torii Hunter who goes out, signs a five-year deal at age 32, and then comes back and does another deal. He (was) playing at 39, going on 40 years old, and at 34, 36, he was having some of the best years of his career.”

The guys at the top of the market get most of the attention, of course. Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million deal with the Padres was officially announced Friday, and he and fellow 26-year-old Harper will be fine.

But baseball’s middle class is getting hammered, again. As we’ve indicated, the vast majority are older, and they came up in a clubhouse culture promising that players who made it through six seasons of team control – and, remember, have a limited earning window anyway – would eventually get their shot at financial security in free agency. That implied promise has been broken.

At one end, teams manipulate service time to start the arbitration and free agent clock a year later. You can bet it will happen with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in Toronto this year, as it did with Atlanta’s Ronald Acuña last year, the Cubs’ Kris Bryant in 2015, etc.

At the other end, when players hit free agency, they’re now getting the take-it-or-leave-it treatment.

I am curious just how much flak MLBPA director Tony Clark and his lieutenants will be receiving in the clubhouses they visit this spring. Colleague Jeff Fletcher quoted Clark as saying that Angels players were “engaged” during their meeting Thursday.

Is that maybe a euphemism for “demanding answers?” It should be.

It was always the strength of the Players Association, under Miller and Don Fehr – labor lawyers both – that players understood the adversarial nature of the labor-management divide. Miller and Fehr had their roots in the Paleozoic Era of baseball’s player-management relationship, when it truly was a take-it-or-leave-it environment and the Players Association had to fight for every inch of progress.

We have now had nearly two decades of labor peace, but that streak could well be in jeopardy when the collective bargaining agreement comes up for discussion in 2021. But before you start siding with the billionaires against the millionaires, ask yourself this: If your favorite team’s payroll goes down, do ticket prices, parking and concessions also go down?

Didn’t think so.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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