Instead of Honestly Addressing the Players' Discontent, Rob Manfred Chose to Fan the Flames

Rob Manfred had an opportunity to empathize with the horde of frustrated players and an angry union. He antagonized them instead.
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Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned, teams are refusing to spend, and at least a third of the league has no plans on contending in 2019.

It hasn’t been the best offseason for Major League Baseball.

The top story of the opening of spring training isn’t who’s had the best winter or which team looks like the top World Series contender, but veteran players venting about the economic state of the game. The mood is less than cheery.

Commissioner Rob Manfred knows this. He noted as much in a press conference with reporters in Florida on Sunday, acknowledging “the negativity” currently surrounding the game. But at the same time, Manfred showed that he either doesn’t understand or—perhaps worse—doesn’t care that all these economic factors are what’s driving all the anger. Instead, Manfred told the assembled reporters that, actually, things are fine, and that the players should stop complaining, and that teams not spending money doesn’t mean that they’re not trying. To wit:

It’s important to note that Manfred isn’t wrong here—but he’s being plenty disingenuous, which might be worse. The highest payroll doesn’t guarantee a World Series ring, but teams that don’t spend don’t often reach late October. The Dodgers, the richest team in the game, have won six straight division titles and two consecutive pennants. The Yankees, playing in a stadium built with stacked dollar bills, have made the postseason 20 out of the last 24 years. (It’s also an oddly timed comment on Manfred’s part given that the team with the biggest payrolldid win it all last season.) The Marlins, Pirates and several other teams, meanwhile, cut payroll and neglected free agents, barely competing last year and not expected to be much better in 2019. Those teams aren’t trying to be good. In the case of Miami or Seattle or Baltimore, a club made the choice to be bad, hope for a top draft pick, and reap the financial benefits of failing.

This is also something Manfred doesn’t consider to be a problem. “The process of putting together a competitive team looks a little different,” he said, per The New York Times’ Tyler Kepner. “Fans have to get used to that different process and have a little faith in the people that are running their clubs.”

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This isn’t the way the game currently operates, and Manfred knows it. Why should Marlins fans believe that yet another teardown—apparently two NL MVPs and the game’s best young catcher wasn’t enough to win—will lead anywhere other than yet another rebuild once the new prospects become expensive major leaguers? Why should Mariners fans simply trust that better is on the horizon after the front office—owners of the longest playoff drought in professional sports—dumped all the good players for pennies? What do Orioles and Royals and Pirates fans have to look forward to besides the changing of the seasons?

But these tanking teams aren’t Manfred’s concern. In fact, he doesn’t think there even was a tanking problem until the players’ union brought it up. “The assertion that teams aren’t trying last spring started with [MLBPA head] Tony Clark singling out four teams. He did very poorly with those four teams. The narrative that our teams are not trying is just not supported by the facts. Every single team wants to win.”
Manfred is right that Clark’s handpicked quartet—the Rays, A’s, Marlins and Pirates, all of whom were accused by the Players Association last winter of not spending their revenue-sharing money—on the whole had good seasons, ranging from 97 wins and the playoffs in Oakland to surprising above-.500 finishes from Tampa and Pittsburgh. (Just don’t look at Miami over there in the corner.) But Manfred is Monday morning quarterbacking. The union never said those chosen teams would have bad seasons—only that they were pocketing money instead of spending it on their rosters. Given that the A’s, Rays, Marlins and Pirates all finished in the bottom five of the league in terms of total payroll last season, it’s hard to argue that Clark was wrong on that count. (What’s more, Tampa, Pittsburgh and Miami all slashed payroll this winter; the Pirates’ current figure is a mere $59 million.)

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There are very obviously teams that are not trying to win. Per Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projections, 13 teams are predicted to finish below .500, including every AL West team but the Astros and three-fifths of the AL Central. The Orioles are pegged for 103 losses; the Tigers at 95; the Marlins at 94. That Manfred can stand before reporters and argue that those teams have designs on winning in 2019 is laughable.

None of this should come as a surprise. As commissioner, it’s Manfred’s job to carry water for the owners, even as he sloshes it all over himself with every step. But the commissioner had a golden opportunity to empathize with the players, or reassure both them and the fans after a rough winter, or at least not antagonize them. Instead, he fanned the flames, blaming the union and the players themselves for a market slowdown that the teams created. Baseball’s financial balance, always tottering in favor of the billionaires who run the teams, has now tipped dramatically in their direction. But instead of trying his best to re-balance the scales, there’s Manfred, putting all his weight on the owners’ side while insisting that everything is level.

The awful possibility of a labor stoppage seems to increase with every day, as more and more players vent about the rigged economics of the game and a league where several teams are openly making no effort. Even the placid Mike Trout is fed up. The “negativity” that Manfred so dislikes isn’t going anywhere, even as he believes that, once Opening Day rolls around, “that positive glow around the game will re-emerge.” In a press conference full of lies, half-truths and bad faith, that might be the most ridiculous statement of them all.