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OC Register: For the MLB Players’ Association, a more unified front isn’t just for show

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PHOENIX — Getting the owners of 30 Major League Baseball teams together in one room isn’t all that hard. Maybe that’s why they do it thrice a year.

Getting all 1,200-plus members of the MLB Players’ Association together? Good luck.

Union leadership has historically been content to meet with players from all 30 teams individually, one at a time. That might be fine in most years, but not 2019. There’s too much at stake now. On Feb. 24 in Phoenix, players from the Dodgers, Rangers and White Sox took the rare step of meeting as a group with union leaders, including executive director Tony Clark. Days later the A’s, Rockies and Diamondbacks did the same. No teams held a joint meeting in 2018; in 2017, only two did.

So why now?

It isn’t just about money, but let’s start there. Last year the average player’s salary fell year-over-year for the first time since 2004. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado’s recently-signed megadeals might tick the average salary upward in 2019, but there are nearly enough unsigned free agents to form a competent major league team. Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Martin Maldonado, Gio Gonzalez, Carlos Gonzalez and Adam Jones were worth a combined 6.8 Wins Above Replacement last year. As free agents, they’ve combined to earn $0 this offseason, and they’re running out of time to find a team. Only three weeks remain before Opening Day.

Is the free agency system broken? If so, how should the union propose to fix it before the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2021 season? Is there anything they can do in the meantime?

These are just some of the questions motivating players to put their heads together in a way they typically don’t.

“Tony (Clark) and (director of player services Kevin) Slowey and (special assistant, player services) Mike Myers invited a couple guys from our union to dinner before spring training even got going,” Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner said Wednesday. “Some guys from the White Sox, some guys from the Rangers and four or five guys from our club. We sat down, had dinner and talked about different things. The consensus was that the meeting would be more powerful, carry more weight if we got together, all three teams at one time, and had the meeting and gave guys an opportunity to stand up and voice their opinion.”

In a public political battle, optics are important. The idea of players presenting a more unified front than years past wasn’t lost on the union or its members. More to the point, they hope the optics weren’t lost on MLB and club owners.

The group meetings held a practical purpose too, Turner said.

“I think the power in it is hearing it come from different leaders around the league,” he said. “We have a lot of guys in here who have been here a long time. A lot of guys that, you know, hear the same guy talking over and over again. You tend to get tuned out. But when you’re in a room with two other clubs and you’ve got Hunter Pence and (Clayton Kershaw) and Russell Martin and Jon Jay standing up and talking, I think it just resonates even better at a higher level with young guys from the other clubs.”

Clark met with players on the Brewers and Mariners separately Wednesday, his final day of Cactus League camp visits. He and others from the union office will meet with various Grapefruit League teams next. These are among the union leaders’ first opportunities to meet with players after Harper’s record $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies became official Saturday.

The players’ level of concern regarding the unsigned free agents “continues to be high,” Clark said. “It was high before Manny and Bryce signed. While we are glad that they did … a number of others are still at home without a job that could help clubs win. It speaks to the concern that we voiced for the last year-plus, that there are undoubtedly players available in the market that can help teams be successful in the field who aren’t being given an opportunity to do so.”

Voicing concern is about all a player can do these days. The fundamental mechanics of how players get paid cannot change except through collective bargaining. That’s more than two years away. Discussing on-field issues (such as pace of play and other rules modifications) are part and parcel of a typical offseason when leaders for the union and the league get together. Yet even these matters seem slow to change. Other than a new voting mechanism for the All-Star Game – more on that in a bit – significant rules changes under discussion now are unlikely to be implemented in 2019.

It’s tempting, then, to conclude that optimism within the union hasn’t changed much in the last year. The contracts for Harper and Machado might have been a source of optimism for the state of free agency, but few players of his caliber reach free agency at age 26 – a player’s prime. As more top prospects such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr. see their debuts delayed so that teams can control their negotiating rights longer, it’s unlikely we’ll see a 26-year-old like Harper and Machado hit free agency anytime soon.

Yet something meaningful has changed, Clark said.

“Last year, we weren’t talking about negotiations toward a new CBA,” he said. “We are in a world now where that is being discussed. The concerns that we had last offseason are the same concerns we have this offseason. That position hasn’t changed, except the opportunity to have the broader conversation has.”

Here are a few more highlights from Clark’s comments to reporters Wednesday:

• On the tone of players’ questions in their group meetings with union leaders: “The engagement of solidarity among the group is something we haven’t seen in a long time. Whether you’re a young player, young guys are asking questions. Whether you’re in the middle, whether you’re a senior player – everybody is paying attention to what’s going on. … It’s something that we’re encouraged by and that we can appreciate as we’ve gone through Arizona and I would suspect that Florida would be similar.”

• On what appealed to players about the posting system between MLB and the Mexican Baseball League, announced Monday: “whether they were Mexican-born players, or players from other countries, having a fair and as transparent a system of entry as possible was what players asked us to try and support and put in place. That’s what is valuable here. That along with there being continuity among the different transfer agreements in place, all has value against the backdrop of fair and transparent.”

• Regarding the forthcoming “Election Day” – a one-day event for All-Star Game voting that will determine starters in each league – Clark said the idea was floated last year and quickly gained fans on both the League and Union sides: “I think there’s value to attention being drawn to one of our marquee events during the course of the year. If there are ways to support that, then we’re willing to have that conversation. … It had value, along with some of the other pieces associated with the Midsummer Classic and the other events around it, that having that conversation and bringing attention and value to it was in the interests of both sides.”

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