MLB officials debate free agency

NEW YORK — Players’ union head Tony Clark claims the number of rebuilding teams and unsigned free agents in a historically slow market threatens the sport’s integrity, an assertion immediately rejected by Major League Baseball.

In a statement and a telephone interview with The Associated Press on Tuesday, Clark voiced the frustration of the 100-plus free agents who remain unsigned with the start of spring training one week away.

“A record number of talented free agents remain unemployed in an industry where revenues and franchise values are at record highs,” he said in a statement, eight days before the first formal workouts. “Spring training has always been associated with hope for a new season. This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom. This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”

Just 61 of 166 players who exercised their free agency rights last November had announced agreements as of Tuesday, down from 99 of 158 at a similar time last year. J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are among the stars still seeking a place to play.

While the players’ association has shown no interest in agent Brodie Van Wagenen’s suggestion that players consider boycotting spring training, the union could announce this week that it will open a training camp for free agents. It would be similar to the one that operated after the 7 ¢-month strike in 1994-95.

Scott Boras, the sport’s most well-known agent, has called the increased number of rebuilding teams a “noncompetitive cancer.”

“We’re finding ourselves asking questions that we never thought we would have to ask before, which is are there concerns about the competitive integrity of the game itself?” Clark told the AP. “When it turns to fans being able to see or wanting to see the best 750 players and those 750-plus players wanting to play against the best players, when that becomes part of the conversation it’s just not beneficial to anybody.”

MLB attributed the amount of unsigned players to a misreading of the marketplace. Just two free agents have agreed to a deal worth $50 million or more: outfielder Lorenzo Cain’s $80 million, five-year deal with Milwaukee and first baseman Carlos Santana’s $60 million, three-year contract with Philadelphia. In addition, outfielder Justin Upton reached a $106 million, five-year contract to stay with the Los Angeles Angels rather than become a free agent.

“Our clubs are committed to putting a winning product on the field for their fans,” the commissioner’s office said in a statement. “Owners own teams for one reason: They want to win. In baseball, it has always been true that clubs go through cyclical, multiyear strategies directed at winning.”

Many teams have concluded there are just two successful strategies: all-in or all-out. Either add veterans around a core group or jettison pricey players and start over.