CLEVELAND — His free agency delayed a year because the Chicago Cubs kept him in the minor leagues for one extra day, Kris Bryant is the shining example of why players are agitating for change in their labor contract.
Baseball has had labor peace following eight work stoppages from 1972 to 1995, but the relationship between Major League Baseball and the union is strained as the current deal approaches its expiration in December 2021.
“I think people are prepared. I think we’ve very well educated,” Bryant said Monday as NL All-Stars gathered in a room. “The problems are out on the board and I think the sides are kind of working towards not getting to that point. But I think everyone here in this room knows what’s going on. There has to be change, and I think there will be.”
Bryant debuted on April 17, 2015, leaving him one day shy of the service time needed to become a free agent after the 2020 season, The players' association filed a grievance in 2015, but the case has not been argued.
Houston pitcher Gerrit Cole becomes eligible for free agency this autumn after watching former teammate Dallas Keuchel and All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel sit out until June because they did not think any of the offers they received before then were appropriate.
“Yeah, I’ve thought about economically how this has been shaking out the last few years. But we spend a lot of time on that in the offseason and in spring training when the union comes around,” Cole said.
As a higher percentage of free agents waited to sign until after spring training was underway, the average salary has stagnated at about $4.1 million for three straight seasons. Players say a lack of competition for free agents has hurt competition on the field, leading to an attendance drop. Management says there always has been rebuilding teams.
Milwaukee infielder Mike Moustakas gets asked about his free-agent experience by other players. He rejected a $17.4 million qualifying offer from Kansas City after the 2017 season and returned to the Royals in mid-March for a one-year contract that included a guaranteed $6.5 million, and then earned an additional $2.2 million in performance bonuses.
He became a free agent again and agreed in February to a $10 million, one-year deal with the Brewers: a $7 million salary this season and an $11 million mutual option for 2020 with a $3 million buyout.
“It's pretty crazy to have Kimbrel and Keuchel sign so late,” Moustakas said. “Baseball needs those kind of guys playing. Those are two superstar players that need to be in the game.”
Astros outfielder George Springer played his first big league game on April 16, 2014, six days shy of being eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. He is among those angry over the treatment of free agents.
“We owe it to the fans to put the best product out of the field at all times,” he said. “There's a lot of guys who work really, really hard to get to free agency, to get to that point, who deserve to get what they get.”
MLB agreed last winter to the union’s request for an early start to negotiations on the next labor contract, but the pace of talks is similar to the pace of game: slow. The sides have had a preliminary meeting to talk about scheduling more meetings.
“Hopefully stuff changes and we can back on the same page with Major League Baseball, somehow,” said Los Angeles Angels infielder Tommy La Stella, also eligible for free agency after the 2020 season. “It seems a ways off but hopefully that dialogue is starting now and we can get something that works for everybody.”
Minnesota's Jake Odorizzi is focused on pitching well for the rest of the season as he prepares to become a free agent after the World Series. Success on the mound increases the chance he could be elevated to an elite tier.
“The free-agent market, I think it’s been very publicized recently, it’s been a very different market than in years past,” he said. “But there’s always certain people that it doesn’t really affect.”