As Major League Baseball teams load up the equipment trucks and players prepare to head to the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues, the casualties from a lost winter keep plugging away with no end in sight. At a complex in Florida, several unemployed free agents compare notes about offers that never materialize and the rampant, seemingly endless stagnation on the open market.
"It's definitely the time of year when everybody is excited to get going with baseball rather than sitting in a weight room," said one unsigned free agent. "Some of the players at our place were joking about it. One guy said, 'Hey, why don't we just start a spring training of our own?'"
An uneventful offseason has ramped up the dialogue to alarming levels. The latest news flash came Friday, when agent Brodie Van Wagenen of CAA released a statement suggesting collusion among owners and raising the possibility of a spring training boycott, which the MLB Players Association refuted in a statement. With pitchers and catchers for the 30 MLB clubs scheduled to report to camps from Feb. 12-14, that doesn't leave much time for fence-mending.
For the more than 100 unsigned Article XX(B) free agents, minor league free agents and December non-tenders still waiting for positive news, an intriguing scenario is making the rounds: Barring an unprecedented surge of agreements this week, could the MLB Players Association help arrange a central clearinghouse for unaffiliated players to gather, bond and simulate the rites and rituals of camp in a sort of shadow spring training?
The concept has yet to advance beyond the speculative stage. But it's becoming more of a talking point each day.
Players, agents and union officials all declined to speak for attribution because of the sensitivity of the situation. But several sources said the union is preparing for the possibility of a spring camp in Florida or Arizona (or possibly, both venues) where unsigned players could gather en masse. Most likely, players would not take part in games or formal showcases. Instead, the initiative would provide them an opportunity to continue their offseason training in a structured, unified setting.
"If it is something that a group of free-agent players thinks is beneficial to them, the logistics of it are not hard and will be done," said a person with union ties. "If there is a need for that, it will be provided. Period. End of story."
The phrase "tryout camp" is a misnomer. J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish and other prominent free agents aren't still on the market because teams question whether they can play -- and few people subscribe to the notion that they'll advance their cause by taking batting practice or throwing bullpen sessions in Arizona or Florida. Those players and other elite free agents are still looking for work because the gap between their expectations and the money that clubs are willing to spend is so pronounced.
The reasons for that gap have been speculated upon ad nauseam. Some agents and players cite a labor agreement that penalizes big spenders while providing no incentive for bottom feeders to increase their payrolls. Others have suggested a coordinated effort on the part of owners, and agent Scott Boras recently told USA Today that a "noncompetitive cancer" is "ruining the fabric of this sport."
Conversely, teams seem more wary of giving long-term deals to players in their 30s, and analytically driven front offices are taking an approach to roster building that appears to foster group-think. While Lorenzo Cain's five-year, $80 million deal with Milwaukee is the most lucrative free-agent deal of the offseason, Giancarlo Stanton, Evan Longoria, Andrew McCutchen, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna and Gerrit Cole are among the prominent players who have changed teams via trade this winter.
For players without jobs, the concerns are more immediate: How do they best prepare if the logjam suddenly breaks and teams decide to spend all that money they've been sitting on all winter? One veteran player agent likes the idea of a central location as an option for the unemployed.
"The best way to relieve anxiety is to let the players do what they've always done -- report to spring training, go through their routines and get ready for the season," the agent said. "Along the way, they're going to be surrounded by any number of players who are in a similar situation.
"This would keep things more normal and regimented. They go out, they know their workouts and what they have to do, and if anybody wants to see them, there they are. They don't have to rush and pack their bags. They're doing spring training as they've always done it."
Not surprisingly, given the chaotic tenor of the times, another agent takes the opposite view.
"You don't know who's going to be there or what the facilities are going to be like," the agent said. "What are guys going to do -- go live in a hotel for three days or three weeks? These guys all have their own trainers and their own facilities. Why would they go to a foreign place? It's not like they need to prove they're healthy. They need to get their work in -- and they're already getting their work in. Are there some guys in cold-weather climates who might do something like that? Sure. But I don't see that as a viable option for the majority of guys."
Baseball hasn't experienced free-agent inertia of this magnitude in almost a quarter century. After commissioner Bud Selig canceled the World Series in 1994, the labor stoppage spilled over to the following spring, and more than 100 free agents were still searching for work in early April. The players' association organized a camp in Homestead, Florida, about 35 miles southwest of Miami, and Dave Stewart, Todd Stottlemyre, Howard Johnson, Mickey Tettleton and Tim Belcher were among dozens of established players who joined a group that called itself the "Homestead Homies."
The MLBPA dealt with a host of logistical issues and put together the camp in about a week. The union gave $70,000 to the city of Homestead for use of the city's sports complex and accompanying maintenance and security, paid for players' lodging and arranged for attendees to be covered by the insurance they had received under their previous contracts.
Beyond that, it was a scramble. Allyne Price, a longtime union official who was then the MLBPA's manager of marketing services, spent her first day in Homestead buying office supplies and doing laundry until the union summoned the cavalry to help with day-to-day details of the operation.
Dave Magadan, then a 31-year-old free agent, was among the players who traveled to Homestead for the camp. Magadan had broken his foot while playing for the Florida Marlins in July 1994 -- shortly before the players went on strike. He spent about a week in Homestead before signing a new deal with the Houston Astros.
"When we first got there, it was exciting," Magadan said. "There were like 80 of us. Then, after four or five days, guys started signing, and there were 60. Then there were 40, then 20, and you felt like the last puppy at the pound who hadn't gotten picked yet.
"At the beginning, guys were playing golf every day. It felt like spring training, and it was fun. Then as the numbers started dwindling, there were a lot [fewer] tee times and a lot more phone calls to your agent. It was a pretty nervous time. There were like 16 guys left when I signed, and believe me, that was a motivating factor. I was like, 'Just give me the contract, man. I just want to get out of here.'"
In the early '90s, Magadan lifted weights during the offseason and took batting practice with fellow big leaguers Jody Reed, Fred McGriff and Mike Devereaux. But in his current role as the Arizona Diamondbacks' hitting coach, he sees the advances players have made in their winter regimens. Big leaguers of today have access to elite facilities with personal trainers, and they arrive in spring training in peak condition rather than using the time in Arizona or Florida as a vehicle to get in shape.
Similarly, the information flow was comparatively archaic 23 years ago.
"The main reason we went to Homestead was just to be seen,'' Magadan said. "There were front-office executives going to the workouts. I was coming off an injury, and I wanted people to know I was able to walk around and do stuff.
"Back then, the only way people were going to see you was if they laid eyes on you. The internet was nonexistent for the most part. That's the biggest difference now. With social media, J.D. [Martinez] can put up Twitter feeds of himself working out and taking swings if he wants. It's a lot easier for players to get stuff out there."
Amid a tense negotiating climate this winter, most of the elite free agents have kept low profiles amid hopes of an uptick in activity. But the signings have been slow to come, and the harsh reality of the situation is about to hit them full force.
"At some point, all of these workout facilities are gonna start clearing out," said a veteran big leaguer who is under contract with a team. "Guys play catch together, and your catch partner is gonna be with his team, and you're gonna be left behind."
Soon enough -- with input from the players -- Tony Clark and the union leadership will have to determine the best way for those free-agent stragglers to navigate the stress that accompanies life among the unemployed. They're all flying blind this spring.