D.A.: Harper/Machado Silence Speaks To MLB's Uncertain Future

The fact that both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned just days before Spring Training isn't a coincidence, Damon Amendolara says

Damon Amendolara
February 08, 2019 - 11:26 am

USA Today Images

For more than a century, the days before pitchers and catchers report have been filled with glee and optimism. Next week, baseball players will report to sun-splashed locales, and begin throwing and hitting and loosening those winter-tightened muscles. For the majority of the country, this is our mental getaway from Polar Vortexes and dark, angry skies. That sound of a baseball into a mitt ("pop!") is enough to make us feel better about our fate. Baseball, spring, is just around the corner. 

But this year is far different, because the week before players report to camp the sport is seething with concern and contempt. The commissioner has suggested massive rules changes, ones that will completely alter the complexion of the game. The two biggest free agents to hit the market arguably since Alex Rodriguez's historic offseason 18 years ago, are curiously unpopular. There is no "pop." 

When Rob Manfred proposed a universal DH, a minimum of three batters faced by relievers and a pitch clock (again) it spoke to a new underpinning of MLB. The powers that be want a new sport. Manfred was hired as a strategic answer to the Bud Selig regime. Selig was old-school, old generation, a symbol of the way baseball used to be. Sure, he ushered in the stadium boom, oversaw expanded playoffs, and never-ending tinkering with the All-Star Game. Selg's era also embraced analytics and monetizing digital media.  

However, the game remained the same. Selig was loathe to change anything on the field. The fundamentals of baseball would never evolve under his watch. The owners see a potentially bleak horizon, and wanted a steward for a new direction. The metrics show the sport's fans are older and less diverse than any of the other major sports. The TV ratings that have continually been chipped away at for the Mid-Summer Classic, playoffs and World Series. They saw an eroding cultural relevance, and an NBA that had caught up to them and raced past. 

Manfred's proposed rules all have a common theme: Speed up the game, generate offense. The NFL has drifted toward an offensive, fantasy-driven league. The NBA outlawed junk and zone defenses, and now watch teams score 120+ points. Everyone is chasing highlights and points for the next generation of fans. The National League DH removes pathetic pitcher at-bats and adds a real hitter. The "three-hitter" rule prevents the marathon of pitching changes. The pitch clock forces everyone to be ready for action quickly and constantly. 

The fact Manny Machado and Bryce Harper remain unsigned, incredibly just days before Spring Training, is connected. The players (and their agents) are looking for long-term deals like Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Giancarlo Stanton signed. A-Rod was 25 years old, and got a 10-year, $252M offer. Pujols was 31, and received 10 years for $254M. Stanton nailed down a 13-year, $325M deal at 26. All of these deals seem like relics of a long lost civilization, like finding hieroglyphics on the cave wall. 

Front office number-crunchers are screaming from rooftops that spending money on 30-something aged players is ludicrous. It's a league built on velocity, launch-angles, home runs and strikeouts. With tight PED testing, players in their thirties continuously fall off the cliff. Long term contracts for anyone, including Harper and Machado, are like smoking or real fur. At one time it was considered chic. Now, it's derided as ignorant. 

Part of that is the evolution of baseball and the realities of the game. Part of that is a league looking out into the horizon and no longer seeing never ending riches. As cord-cutting continues, and television bundles break apart, baseball's golden goose - local TV deals - are on shaky ground. Will smaller market teams like the Rays continue to earn $82M per year as people flow towards Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime and other digital platforms? If the primary consumer of baseball continues to age out (half the league's fans are 55+), will sponsors be lining up to be part of the league? Will Millennials embrace baseball, or is the sport's audience destined to fracture apart like horse racing or boxing's decades ago? 

Manfred is seeking to modernize the sport immediately, and dramatically. Two of its best players can't find long-term deals. The league is rich right now, but has no idea what its long-term future looks like. There isn't likely official collusion, like the Players Association has claimed. Owners aren't issuing memos not to sign big ticket free agents. Instead, this is an overall austerity after the arms race of the last thirty years. They know payrolls skyrocketing well into the future is bad business, because their revenues will not match unless the sport reinvents itself. Even then, there's no guarantee. The league is wondering about its future, and so the present isn't as sunny as it used to be. This year's spring training now has a cloudy forecast.  

Damon Amendolara, known by his fans as D.A., hosts “The D.A. Show,” from 9:00AM-12:00PM, ET, across the country on the nation’s largest 24/7 major-market radio network. “The D.A. Show” is known for its unique perspective on sports, tongue-in-cheek sense of humor, colorful listener interaction, and candid interviews with athletes and coaches. Amendolara also appears regularly on NFL Network as part of the “NFL Top 10” documentary film series, CBS television and SNY TV. He is a Syracuse University grad and native of Warwick, N.Y.