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Offseason of free-agency discontent foreshadows a possible stormy 2021 labor deal

If you are expecting to find a man who is beaten down or just plain beaten, you have come to the wrong place.

This is Scott Boras' suite at Angel Stadium. It's the one directly behind home plate. Watch the Angels on television, and you'll probably catch a glimpse or two of Boras.

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Boras walks out from his underground private lounge, where he has met with one of the players he represents. He climbs the stairs, takes one of his seats in the outdoor box, and greets a broadcaster from the visiting team. The Angels game is a few minutes from first pitch; the Washington Nationals are playing on the televisions in his box.

The offseason might have been unkind to a plethora of free agents, but Boras wore the target on his back. He is baseball's most quotable agent, and there is no shortage of agents who delight in the apparent misfortune of their high-profile rival. What made the last offseason unusually dramatic was how the commissioner's office went after him, and not subtly.

"I'm not sure they came after me," Boras said.

As a chill settled over the free-agent market, the rhetoric grew heated before it became overheated.

Were free agents put on hold because the Shohei Ohtani sweepstakes and the Derek Jeter fire sale had diverted the attention of teams? Were teams colluding against free agents or wising up in not lavishing big bucks on older players? Were teams bowing at the altar of the luxury tax or saving their money for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and the next star-studded free-agent class? With so many tanking teams, were there too many free agents chasing too few suitors?

This was the official league answer in January: "There are a variety of factors that could explain the operation of the market. We can say that without a doubt collusion is not one of them. It's difficult to pinpoint a single cause, but it certainly is relevant that an agent who has a long track record of going late into the market controls many of the top players."

The statement did not say agents, plural. It said agent, meaning Boras.

"I don't ever take anything like that personally," Boras said. "It's not about me. It's about the people I represent, and the stature of the players I represent."

In February, at the start of spring training, seven statured Boras clients remained unsigned. The league's chief legal officer, Dan Halem, responded to a round of Boras criticism by calling him out by name.

"If Mr. Boras spent as much time working on getting his players signed as he does issuing inflammatory and unsubstantiated statements to the press," Halem told FanRag Sports, "perhaps the events of this offseason would be different."

The Marlins might not be beaten this summer as much as Boras was last offseason, or so the story line went. He is supposed to feel defeated.

"When I look at the contracts for our players, I don't," Boras said.

Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez signed soon after camps opened, Hosmer with the San Diego Padres for $144 million and Martinez with the Boston Red Sox for $110 million.

Jake Arrieta signed with the Philadelphia Phillies in March for $75 million. If he pitches well, the Phillies can extend his contract, with the total value rising to $105 million.

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No amount of waiting could conjure up a pot of gold for Carlos Gonzalez, Greg Holland and Mike Moustakas, all of whom had to settle for one-year contracts.

That puts them back into the market next offseason, which might become the most pivotal since the 1994-95 strike. If the last offseason turns out to be the new normal, then players and owners could be on a collision course toward a strike in 2021,when the current labor contract expires.

"I do not see anything like that happening in next winter's market," Boras said.

That would require more teams to play to win, and in so doing sign free agents to fill out a competitive roster.

Rob Manfred, the commissioner, has argued that winning and losing can be cyclical, and that fans understand their team might need a few years to rebuild. But Boras contends restraints on spending — the luxury tax, the limits on bonuses for amateur players here and abroad — were sold to players in collective bargaining as ways to enhance competitive balance.

"Now the premise of the commissioner's office is, no, you're free to be noncompetitive, at your leisure," Boras said.

The competitive imbalance might correct itself. Six teams are on pace to lose 100 games. Never in the last 15 seasons have more than two teams lost 100 games.

Attendance is down 7% from this time last year, with the league on pace for its fifth decline in six seasons, according to baseball-reference.com. The audience for the flagship ESPN Sunday night game is down 30% from last year, Sports Business Journal reported Friday.

With fewer fans watching in person and on television, Boras said, teams could make less money from corporate sponsors and cable contracts. He proposed that the league mandate teams spend a certain amount on payroll or forfeit draft picks and eligibility for revenue sharing.

"We need to assure that, when fans are going to root for a team and get attached to a team, that team is in a league that requires competitive standards," he said.

Even if the tanking strategy fades, on its own or by legislation, analytics are here to stay. When analytics say it makes little sense to lavish huge free-agent contracts upon players in their thirties, how can even the most convincing of agents persuade a team otherwise?

"If you want to take that analytic principle into collective bargaining — that I'm not going to pay you for past performance — then you're going to have to pay a truer value for the current performance," Boras said.

How?

"Free agency after three years," he said. "I'm not a proponent of that."

The same owners that embrace analytics to help manage the payroll might not be a proponent of that either, since they would control a player for half as long as they do now. And Boras insisted the six-year wait before free agency provides more data — or, as he put it, "certainty to determine the player was worthy of the payment for future years."

To the owner that would rather pay $30 million to, say, Mike Trout at 25 than to Albert Pujols at 35, Boras says $30 million might not be market value for the elite young player, or even close to it.

In each of Trout's five full seasons before his injury-shortened one last year, his fair market value ranged from $63 million to $77 million, according to data presented by Fangraphs.

You can start to see where this is headed, and why that could be a disaster.

The league's annual revenues have jumped above $10 billion. They could explode with expansion and/or relocation fees associated with Manfred's proposed 32-team league, and with an anticipated Supreme Court ruling that any state can legalize sports gambling.

Yet, the average major league salary fell this season, for the first time in 14 years, according to an Associated Press study.

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The last two decades of labor peace were preceded by two decades of strikes and lockouts. The players' union drubbed the owners routinely, in large part because the players demonstrated extraordinary solidarity. The owners did not, because economic concerns diverged between large-market teams and small-market teams.

The players united behind one bedrock principle: No salary cap, ever. Owners should be free to pay a player whatever they like.

In recent negotiations, the players essentially have approved caps in spending on amateur players. If next offseason's market is sluggish, and if teams continue to use the luxury tax threshold as a de facto salary cap, then the owners might have the union in a vise.

As so much money flows into the league, players are increasingly concerned that they are not getting their fair share. That is not an issue in the NFL, NBA and NHL, where players get a designated share of league revenue.

In return, however, they accept a salary cap.

There are dynamic thinkers, and creative solutions, out there. In the meantime, baseball is on the clock: three years to midnight.

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter @BillShaikin

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