Olney: What can union chief Tony Clark do to help players get bigger paydays?

MLB Players Association chief Tony Clark has work to do if he wants to avoid a repeat of last winter's frozen hot stove. AP Photo/Morry Gash

For the first time since the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency, MLB team spending on player salaries will decline, according to numbers compiled by Paul Hembekides, a researcher for ESPN Stats & Information.

That’s 14 consecutive years of pretty steady growth, followed by decline. The players’ share of the pie continues to get smaller, and for the owners, even larger.

There are plenty of signs that the winter of 2017-18 was the first wave in a troubling trend, from the explosion in the number of free agents -- the volume works against the players as a function of supply and demand -- to the recent rash of signings of young players who agree to forgo free agency for a year or two or three. The players are aware of all of this, of course, and spring training camps were filled with conversations about what should come next for the union. When Tony Clark met with teams, some players asked the executive director very hard questions. The frustration and anger over the financial shift is raw and deep.

But to date, the union’s collective response has been surprisingly slow, and probably for the obvious reason: In an industry in which careers average only a few years at the big league level, the players are mostly focused on their work. On pitching, on hitting, on the increased preparation required for games scheduled almost daily for six months.

This is why Clark needs to drive the changes that are needed, as soon as possible. In some presidential administrations, cabinet secretaries will provide letters of resignation that can be used when needed, so when the president sees a need for change, he can execute it quickly.

Given the current context, a letter of resignation from Clark would push the players’ executive committee into needed action. This wouldn’t necessarily mean that the letter would be accepted or that Clark’s role or title would even change. But it would give the players an immediate opportunity to reassess, to restructure, to strengthen their side.

And with that proffer of resignation, Clark should recommend that the players create an advisory board -- a legal brain trust -- that could evaluate the union’s position and challenges, and offer suggestions. The counsel of Don Fehr and Gene Orza could be gleaned in this way. Virginia Seitz, who has successfully argued cases on behalf of the players' association in the past, would be another name to consider.

As it stands, some players have talked about waiting until the executive-board meeting in the forthcoming offseason to give Clark more time for change on his own. Clark is well-liked and well-respected as a person, and some players respect how much he cares for them. But the players should not wait to start the engine of change.

“Each day that passes jeopardizes the next market,” one agent said, “and limits [the group] that is going to lead. Each day that passes is a lost day.”

A big-picture strategy is needed as soon as possible to combat the effects of the recent spending trends: the front-office aversion to investing in free agents over 30 years old; the increased specialization of roles, which limits the earning power of pitchers and position players being rested more often; the enormous classes of free agents.

But the union cannot adequately prioritize issues and create the desperately needed vision until it determines what form the leadership will take, whether Clark leads a revamped legal team or he works in concert with an all-star team of union lawyers or new lawyers take control.

There was talk among some players in spring training about preparing for labor war when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in a few years. That can be helpful only if those conversations serve to educate a generation of players who haven’t been through a work stoppage.

But there are a whole lot of steps that could be taken before the summer of 2021. None of them can really be explored until the players create the leadership they want and need. Once that happens, the players' association can purposefully engage Major League Baseball on the issues that folks on both sides see as problematic -- for example, the increased number of teams that tank seasons and don’t spend. Those conversations will take time -- for idea exchange, for bargaining, for identifying common ground and solutions.

Clark would help the players he really cares about by leading them to the changes the union needs.

• Inevitably, there will be more spending on free agents next winter than this winter, because the class might include Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw and Josh Donaldson. “Beyond that, it is going to be a disaster -- again,” an agent predicted.

From Hembekides: Teams committed almost a billion dollars less in major league free-agent contracts this offseason than each of the previous two, dropping to $1.47 billion from $2.41 billion in 2016-17 and $2.53 billion in 2015-16. As a result, it's obviously safe to speculate if payroll growth will ever gain the momentum it did for much of the past 15 years.

Challenges and quirks in the regular-season schedule

As Giants players shook hands Friday night, Joe Panik worked to suppress a grin. In each of San Francisco’s first two games of the season, a solo home run by Panik represented the only scoring in the game -- the first time the Giants had won consecutive 1-0 decisions on the road since 1908. And this comes at a time when San Francisco is without Madison Bumgarner (out until late May or early June), Jeff Samardzija (expected back sometime in April) and closer Mark Melancon (out indefinitely) -- and when the Giants' schedule is loaded with early games against the Dodgers. Ten of San Francisco’s first 28 games are against Los Angeles, and they need early-season heroes such as Panik.

Some other interesting schedule quirks from early this season:

The Marlins could get buried quickly: Miami’s new ownership made the decision to slash payroll and trade just about any expensive player it could, to reposition the team. So the Marlins will be likely be terrible by design, and on top of that, their April schedule is packed with games against high-end teams out of their division: four against the Cubs, then two against the Red Sox, two at Yankee Stadium on April 16-17, four in Milwaukee, then three at Dodger Stadium. If those games play out as expected, it could be that by May 1, the Marlins should prepare in earnest for the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft.

The Nationals could have a pillow-soft schedule in the second half: Washington and the Marlins play only three games before July 5, leaving a whole lot of second-half cupcakes on the table. Twelve of the Nationals’ final 60 games are against the Marlins.

The Dodgers have a fair bit of travel down the stretch: Sometimes, the West Coast teams can mostly stay in the Pacific time zone in the last weeks, but over the final five weeks of the regular season, the Dodgers will have trips to Texas, Colorado, Cincinnati and St. Louis.

The Astros will get a lot of their tougher out-of-division games out of the way early: By June 4, Houston will have played home-and-home sets against the Yankees and Indians, as well as a four-game set against the Red Sox. Eighteen of Houston’s first 61 games are against the Indians, Yankees and Red Sox.

The Cubs have a chance to break out strongly: Chicago will see a lot of the National League's weakest teams early, including 13 games against the Marlins and Braves by May 17.

The Red Sox will have a chance to feast on the Rays: The Tampa Bay-Boston rivalry has always been underrated in its intensity -- remember Gerald Williams charging Pedro Martinez, one of many brawls between the teams? But the Red Sox are loaded now, and the Rays are restructuring. Boston will play most of its 2018 games against Tampa Bay by May 24 -- 13 of 19 matchups. And then the Red Sox won’t see the Rays again until Aug. 17 and not once in September.

News from around the majors

Kershaw threw inside at a higher rate than any pitcher in baseball in 2017, in keeping with a career-long habit of bullying hitters. But on Opening Day, his average fastball was down to a career-low 90.7 mph, and he attacked the outer half of the strike zone in his final few innings, often with off-speed pitches, and kept the Giants’ hitters off-balance, allowing one run in six innings. Some evaluators believe Kershaw would benefit from making the same transition CC Sabathia has made during his career; by consistently using both sides of the plate, he can be less predictable and more difficult for hitters to diagnose.

From ESPN Stats & Information research, no pitcher threw inside at a higher rate last season than Kershaw. He threw 40.2 percent of his pitches inside, a full 3 percent higher than any other player.

Another interesting note about Kershaw’s pitch locations: He threw 70.1 percent of his pitches in the lower half of the strike zone last season, more than 10 percent higher than he has thrown in any other season in the past 10.

• Because Hal Steinbrenner’s Yankees opened this season ranked just seventh among teams in payroll, they are well-positioned to make significant midseason deals, if needed. Last year, the Yankees wanted Justin Verlander but had to let him pass by on waivers because they didn’t have the payroll flexibility to spend. This year, they will likely be among the most aggressive teams, particularly in the August waiver period, with a chance to make an already good club even better.

• The Dodgers appear to have found a great bullpen piece in right-hander J.T. Chargois, who was placed on waivers by the Twins in late February. He was thrilled and surprised that L.A. made the claim, and followed the Dodgers' suggestion that he move from the third-base side of the pitching rubber to the first-base side, a shift designed to improve his angle and command. Chargois got strong results in spring training and in his first appearance of the regular season.

Baseball Tonight podcast

Friday: First impressions from the first day of the season -- about the Giants, Clayton Kershaw, Gabe Kapler, the Cubs, the Greg Holland signing, etc.; Derek Jeter; Rob Manfred.

Thursday: A chat with Kershaw about adjustments; Jessica Mendoza on the Giants and Dodgers; Keith Law on the Astros and predictions; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.

Wednesday: Jerry Crasnick on the big moment for the Blue Jays and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., plus predictions; Hembekides, about the spending trend in Major League Baseball; and a great story out of the White Sox organization about a man who spent 23 years in prison wrongfully but now has his old job back with the team.

Tuesday: Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons on defense, Zack Cozart and Ian Kinsler; Boog Sciambi on the Greg Bird injury and a possible domino effect from the cold free-agent market; Sarah Langs plays The Numbers Game.

Monday: Phillies general manager Matt Klentak about the historic Scott Kingery signing; Tim Kurkjian on the Giants’ pitching injuries and 2018 predictions; and Todd Radom’s weekly quiz.

And today will be better than yesterday.