Passan: The state of baseball as 2019 season begins

Tatis overcome with emotion after making Padres (0:54)

Fernando Tatis Jr. was so excited when he found out he was on the Opening Day roster that he didn't know whether to jump or scream with excitement. (0:54)

Earlier this spring, as San Diego Padres players were starting to dream about just how transformative the 2019 season could be for a franchise in eternal hibernation, Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer set up a dinner with Ron Fowler. Machado is the Padres' newly minted $300 million third baseman, Hosmer their $144 million first baseman and Fowler the owner who greenlit their signings. Machado and Hosmer had a proposal.

As counterintuitive as it was for the Padres, the definition of a small-market team, to guarantee almost half a billion dollars to two free agents, what Machado and Hosmer were asking was nearly as gauche: Open the season with 20-year-old Fernando Tatis Jr. as the team's starting shortstop. Each had said the same publicly, though it's easy to posture while understanding the truth: to promote a player of Tatis' immense talent -- and forgo the opportunity to manipulate his service time, thus ensuring one more year of control before he reaches free agency -- is seen as organizational malpractice.

Machado and Hosmer did not care. They want to win now. Machado weathered the free-agent market this winter just as Hosmer did last offseason -- with fear and skepticism about how the forever-fertile landscape had grown barren for most players. Both recognized the surfeit of teams entering 2019 without a mandate to win. This, in their minds, was the real malpractice. This, too, offered an opportunity for the Padres once again to be different, to zag while those abiding by conventional wisdom -- no matter how actuarially sound -- zigged.

"At some point, if you're not spending the most money you can, at least get the best guys in the organization," Hosmer told ESPN in early March. "We're spending the money. And the kid is a big leaguer. I hope he breaks [camp] with us."

The pitch to Fowler worked. Tatis was the youngest player to start on Opening Day in more than 20 years. His ascent, the politicking behind it and the willingness of Fowler, general manager A.J. Preller and the rest of the Padres' front office to promote not just Tatis but also top pitching prospect Chris Paddack will be dissected for years. Decision-making in baseball is rote, bordering on automated. Value is king. Potentially giving up a prime year of Tatis' or Paddack's career might as well be cursing the crown.

This is Major League Baseball in 2019, as the sport celebrates its 150th anniversary. It is players lobbying owners to win. It is two of the 25 best players in an organization making the team -- and that registering as a surprise. It is frugality in free agency begetting, oddly enough, a deluge of spending. It is the faint sound of labor war drums and the heavy sound of an on-field product in transition. It is the confluence of these elements into a $10 billion-a-year business that teeters and wobbles and oscillates in search of balance -- and an identity to sell it to a new generation that still isn't sold.

The business is the game. The game is the business. And more than ever, for better or worse, they are conjoined.

Over the past nine days, an unprecedented wave of contract extensions washed over baseball. Teams guaranteed more than $1.1 billion to 11 players. Five of the deals exceeded $100 million. The biggest gave Mike Trout the world's first $400 million-plus sports contract. Justin Verlander set a per-year record for pitchers. Eloy Jimenez got $43 million before he played a single day in the major leagues. Both reigning Cy Young winners locked themselves in for five years. Add in nearly $600 million more in extensions since the start of the year, and owners spent nearly as much locking up under-control players this winter as they spent on free agents.

"Of course they did," one longtime agent said. "Remember what I said last year?"

What he said as the 2018 season dawned and the players' winter of discontent ended wound up being remarkably prescient. MLB, he said, does not want to kill free agency altogether because the consequences of doing so would be too volatile. If free agency were simply wounded -- made not to be a land of rainbows with pots of gold at each end but a bad user experience -- certain consequences would naturally follow.

For this to happen, he said, would not necessarily take collusion among teams, because the like-mindedness of so many clubs -- particularly with their use of analytical systems to calculate players' worth -- would organically lead to similar valuations. Metrics long have given significant weight to the aging curve, devaluing players in their 30s, who happen to comprise almost the entirety of every free-agent class. Players would go through varying stages of reaction to this paradigm: disbelief, anger and, eventually, if they want to play, acceptance. At which point the market would have so deeply collapsed that its shift would begin to feel like the new normal and the aforementioned consequences would reveal themselves.

"And that," the agent said this week, "is why I said you're seeing an absurd amount of extensions. Because if free agency isn't what it used to be, players aren't going to hold out for it like they once did."

There was, he said, an inevitability to all this. It didn't just start with the maligned current collective bargaining agreement, which placed enormous pressure on MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark to remedy a system failing too many players. This reality is the logical conclusion of the sabermetric revolution. If reason- and evidence-based decision-making were going to become the standard across front offices, numbers were always going to win. Even the greatest game theorist could not have prevented it entirely.

And so here baseball is, with players all spring publicly denigrating the state of the business, which, by proxy, is denigrating the state of the sport. They see Machado and Bryce Harper waiting upward of four months to sign. They see Craig Kimbrel, the best closer of the past half-decade, and Dallas Keuchel, a Cy Young winner three years ago, still jobless on Opening Day. They see stars forgoing free agency to grab extension money. They are angry, and they are resentful, and after Clark hit all 30 camps and updated his constituents on the state of play, they're still not entirely sure what the recourse is.

Because for all the rancor, the players understand the opponent is formidable. Over the past 25 years of labor peace, MLB has wrangled the game's narrative. For a league that is widely believed to be bad at marketing, consider its messaging victories. Fans celebrate team-friendly deals -- or contracts that are well under market -- because they theoretically give ownership more leeway to spend, even if owners aren't necessarily held to that standard. The ethical landmine of massive data collection on players is spun as a tool for greater knowledge -- which it is, certainly, but also can be compromised if weaponized against the players whose access to said data is limited. The public has grown used to service-time manipulation, a grouping of words that even sounds ugly but is shrugged off instead as an intelligent business practice even as it's entirely antithetical to winning today.

Think of it this way: When Jimenez, one of the best prospects in baseball, was sent to minor league camp this spring by the Chicago White Sox, it was ostensibly because he was not ready for the major leagues. Then Jimenez signed a long-term contract, and suddenly he was not just ready but starting Opening Day in the middle of the White Sox lineup. When the difference between a player being ready and not ready is his willingness to sign a contract, the system is deeply flawed.

Which sounds bad. And it is. It's worth worrying about and worth discussing. It's worth players banding together and worth MLB using its cadre of intellect, from inside its central office to the front offices of its 30 teams, to find labor peace. It's also not even close to the biggest problem facing baseball in 2019.

Major League Baseball's existential threat is nameless, and it is faceless, and it is unrelenting. It is not new. It started around the same time as the 1994 strike, when baseball's popularity sunk and the league's desire for financial stability birthed the explosion in revenue growth and franchise values. Maybe it's just correlated, and maybe it's causative, and maybe it's somewhere in between, but as MLB grew into a $10 billion-a-year business, so, too, grew the age of its audience.

Today, as MLB fights for market share amid a saturated entertainment landscape, it does so with a demographic anchor tied to its ankle. The average TV-viewing baseball fan is 57 years old. MLB's social media followings pale compared to those of the NBA and NFL. The league does not have a single star in the traditional sense of a player widely recognized by even casual fans. The generation gap is real. And it scares MLB in the same way the economic inertia does the players -- it's a problem with no easy solution.

Because here's the thing: Baseball today, on a granular level, is an incredible sport, better than it has ever been. Hitters understand how their bodies move, take better care of them, optimize their swings and crave the littlest bits of knowledge that might unlock a secret to their craft. They need to be that obsessed with minutiae because pitchers are even more pathological. They know the degree of the spin axis on their pitches and the rate at which those pitches rotate. They throw harder than ever, generate bigger break than ever and induce more swings-and-misses than ever. The athleticism, the skill, the work -- it's omnipresent in baseball. A historic talent wave is washing over the sport. Every day offers something new and incredible.

Baseball, with that foundation, should sell itself. It does the opposite. For a game with such dynamism, it slogs along like a tape running at half speed. The time between pitches drags. The time between balls in play drags. The recognition that fastball velocity and success go hand in hand led to a generation of flamethrowers, which precipitated an initial spike in strikeouts, which emphasized the importance of strikeouts to the next generation of pitchers, who arrived in the major leagues knowing swing-and-miss stuff matters more than anything. With fewer balls in play than ever, defensive shifts have compounded the lack of hits. Like baseball free agency, the game itself is increasingly stuck trending toward all-or-nothing outcomes.

So when commissioner Rob Manfred tries to pursue changes that could fundamentally alter on-field play, like the three-batter-minimum rule for pitchers set to debut next year, he does so at his own peril -- because there are millions of people in their 50s who still watch baseball and scoff at this, the most traditional sport, daring to adapt. And it's true: The adaptation might be flawed, which is why Manfred uses the dual testing climates of the minor leagues and independent Atlantic League to guinea-pig whatever ideas cross his desk. The consternation of obdurate baseball fans is poison to a game that doesn't run the risk of dying -- baseball is nowhere near life support -- but does face a reckoning if the next two generations regard it as a decent place to spend a summer night instead of a 162-day soap opera.

The challenge is courting youth without alienating the base -- and Manfred's maneuvering leans drastically toward the former. It's not just his stated desire to cut down game time. It's MLB's embrace of gambling, which for its potential financial windfall also brings a younger audience. It's the "Let the Kids Play" marketing campaign that tacitly approves bat flips and personality and all the things that would've wound up with a fastball to the earhole a generation ago.

Those days, and those players, are being weeded out, and if the sprays of Roundup happen to affect the fandom of those stuck in the past, so be it. This is too important for MLB to ignore. For decades, the league did not recognize the threat the MLBPA posed, and by the time it did, the most powerful labor union in the United States was born. The league's slow clawing back of power illustrates its ability to execute a large-scale plan, iterate based on in-the-moment trends, and conquer.

It would just be much easier with a partner.

During spring training this year, as a group of players came to grips with another soft free-agent market, they bandied about ways to protest without looking like a bunch of complaining millionaires. They settled on the idea of every player on Opening Day wearing a T-shirt underneath his uniform. On the front it would say "1994." And on the back: "UNIFIED."

The idea, sources said, never gained widespread traction. As much as players want to present a united front, the lack of unanimity among them is a pressure point MLB has tried to exploit in extension talks, which are inherently guided by individual liberty, or arbitration cases, around which players have cohered nevertheless to make significant gains.

More than a billion dollars in extensions later, labor discord remains the topic foremost in the minds of players as the 2019 season begins, and it leads to the question of: What leverage do the players have to initiate change? That discussion is often framed incorrectly. It's not a matter of what the players can give up. It's what they can give.

Their power is in their ability to be collaborative with MLB on the game's evolution on the field and in the boardroom. What 2019 might reveal is the players' ultimate stance in attempting to do so. Some are begging for a war to reset a relationship they worry has grown lopsided. They'll hold their nose for two more winters of free-agent fallout, stomach the extensions that don't match what free agency once gave and fight 30 teams they believe have conspired to hold on to disproportionate amounts of revenue -- revenue that is generated more because of their talents and skills than the laundry they wear when plying them. They want a lockout. If the owners don't oblige, they want a strike. They want everyone to feel pain, not just the players whose careers were waylaid by the new normal.

Others dare not slay the golden goose. Compromise can be reached. Certainly, they believe, MLB doesn't see constant public bickering as good for business. When free agency, a festival of dopamine hits with the NBA and NFL, plays out like a barbiturate for baseball, a monthslong snoozefest that totters toward a sad end, nobody wins. Change that, offer to be part of the marketing solution, work hand in hand creating an on-field product that appeals to all generations and reap the rewards. To that class of players, it's optimism. To the hawks, it's naivete.

Whatever their tack, players cannot lose sight of what the game looks like 10, 20, 30 years from now. To do so would be a dereliction of duty and a betrayal of the MLBPA's founding principles. Players in 1960s, '70s and '80s fought for themselves, yes, but they did so aware that the gains made would influence generations ahead. As negotiations between the league and players on core economic issues begin in earnest soon, the balance of now and next is vital.

There is fear among players that some will be left behind -- a more-than-rational concern. If the old system isn't dead, it's a shell of what it once was, and the likelihood of it returning is infinitesimal. Value-conscious front offices aren't going anywhere, not when owners have bought into their ability to run lean operations. The most practical outcome, convoluted though it would be, is a reimagination of the game's economic system to redistribute money to the younger players teams have shown a desire to pay.

Plenty of skepticism accompanies this. The union's leadership consists of older players, the sorts whose financial futures could be compromised by any change in allocation of revenue. Further, the paranoia that already tinges the relationship -- multiple teams met with union leaders outdoors this spring out of fear that recording devices inside clubhouses could capture their conversations -- leaves players wondering whether this is just another feint by MLB to further squeeze a shrunken market.

Every labor negotiation requires vulnerability, and the acknowledgement that the aging curve is real -- while accepting that plenty of outliers exist and younger players are not better than older players simply because of their youth -- would serve as a solid base for talks. From there, the players could ask for the reserve period, or how long teams control their services, to drop from six years to five. They could push to restructure the service system and offer teams incentives to bring their best young players to the major leagues so Tatis, Paddack and New York Mets first baseman Pete Alonso aren't anomalies. They could fight the existence of the luxury tax not just using Manfred's words -- "I reject the notion that payroll is a good measure for how much a team is trying or how successful that team is going to be," he said this spring -- but those of his predecessor, Bud Selig, who said the competitive-balance tax threshold was not meant to act as a de facto salary cap.

All of these elements are on the table, according to sources, and if players make the sanctity of the game -- and not their bank accounts -- a top priority, they can make inroads in the messaging department, too. This isn't about them. It is about the game's future. It is about creating a new generation of fans through a game where every team is compelled to win every year because losing is unacceptable. That's a whale of a sell to the public, and if baseball can manage to do so without resorting to a salary cap -- something to which the union remains fundamentally opposed, sources said -- then all the better.

These are bold, audacious ideas. They are also, in some form, entirely realistic if MLB knows players will become the drivers in dealing with the demographic issues. It's one thing to have players involved in rules changes to increase pace of play and pace of action rather than hewing to the baseball-is-perfect-and-needs-no-changes line so many do. It's another for MLB to insist that its manifold corporate sponsors create campaigns around players to make them every bit as ubiquitous to the public as other star athletes.

Which feels like a lot to ask for a sport in which humility is a virtue and egocentrism a sin. These are also important times that necessitate bold thinking. Manfred has proved himself a canny operator -- smart, savvy, astute, with a sharp team around him. He's got big ideas, like buying nearly all of the regional sports networks that own teams' television rights and using MLB's massive distribution platform to control every aspect of its most valuable product, according to sources.

As frustrated as players have grown -- hundreds this winter lost individual shoe deals, sources said, even as Nike was signing a 10-year deal with MLB to manufacture uniforms -- their choice of how to channel that frustration is complicated. Whatever chasms exist must be limited before Clark and the union's new negotiator, Bruce Meyer, can plot from any position of power. A union is as strong as its togetherness, not its grievances.

The latter, of course, can foster the former, and enough anger is burbling to power a rebirth of a strong MLBPA. Just look at what Machado and Hosmer did. It's a stretch to say their words are why Fernando Tatis Jr. will be playing shortstop behind Chris Paddack at Petco Park on Sunday. It's not a stretch to say they carried weight, that whatever imbalance might exist between the parties does not render the voice of players any less acute.

This is baseball in 2019, where the game is the business and the business the game, where everyone has the opportunity to make it better -- or worse.