Manfred: Slow free agent market is ‘distributional problem’

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              Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, center, speaks with Boston Red Sox owner John Henry, right, and Boston Globe Managing Director Linda Henry, left, at a gathering of the Boston College Chief Executives Club, Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Boston. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
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BOSTON (AP) — It’s not collusion, it’s a “distributional problem” that has shut dozens of baseball players out of the free agent market this offseason, commissioner Rob Manfred said on Wednesday.

Speaking to a group of Boston business executives, Manfred said the percentage of revenue going to the players hasn’t changed in the past 15 years or so. If players are unhappy about how it’s being spent, Manfred said, he’s happy to talk to them about solutions.

“The money that’s going for them in aggregate is the same,” he said at a meeting of the Boston College Chief Executives Club. “It may be that you (players) think some guys are getting too much, some guys are getting too little. You’d like to create additional opportunities. It’s up to you to explain to us what you’re looking for in terms of distribution of those dollars.”

After years of growth, the total amount spent on player payroll dropped last year for the first time since 2010 and only the second time since 2002. What’s bothered the players, though, has been the slow market for free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado.

The lack of a bidding war for two of the game’s stars left them waiting until after the start of spring training for other offers. A couple of dozen other free agents remain unsigned, and some players and agents accused owners of colluding to keep salaries down.

But Manfred preferred to look at the result: 10 years and $300 million for Machado, and 13 years and $330 million for Harper.

“In case you missed it, we did spend 600 million bucks — 630 to be exact — on two players last week. Set some new records,” Manfred said in an on-stage conversation with Red Sox president Sam Kennedy. “Players are still getting these mega-contracts.”

Manfred said he would be willing to discuss changes now, even though the collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until after the 2021 season.

“But (players) have to identify for us what it is that you see as the problem in the system,” he said.

Manfred’s comments came as owners and players neared an agreement to allow teams to carry an extra player for most of the season starting in 2020 and for other changes to the way rosters are managed. The deal would include a limit on September call-ups — lowering the maximum roster size from 40 players to 28 — and on the number of pitchers would be designed to end the parade of relievers that can cause games to run long. Baseball also agreed not pursue a pitch clock through the 2021 season.

People familiar with the negotiations discussed details of the agreement with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the agreement had not yet been finalized.

“Baseball, like every other institution, has to thoughtfully approach change to address concerns that fans raise,” Manfred said. “One of the things that our research tells us is that the length of the games is an issue and one of the causes of that is relief pitching changes. And I think we have to be open to thinking about changes in that area.”

Players have proposed changes such as expanding the designated hitter to the National League and altering the amateur draft to discourage teams from tanking in order to improve their draft position.

“It’s always important to make small deals that allow you to address bigger issues,” Manfred said. “And we’re working hard to do that.”

Baseball announced in December a new deal that would allow Cuban players to sign major league contracts without defecting. The agreement came despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to undo President Barack Obama’s 2014 decision expand U.S-Cuba relations.

Manfred said the previous administration was more consistent to deal with.

“It has been more challenging in terms of working with the Trump administration,” Manfred said. “We’ve worked with them already on several projects. It’s been a little difficult but generally positive as well.”