By Sam Bush

Dozens of valuable free agents remained unsigned as spring training camps opened, led by 26-year-old superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado (above), whose combination of skills and youth were supposed to invigorate a slumbering market.

Instead, they had few suitors, begging players to ask a sobering question:

If Harper and Machado can’t generate a strong market, who among us can?

After a second consecutive winter that’s seen veteran players pushed to the margins of the game, and superstars forced to wait until deep into February – or longer – to receive what they feel is fair market value for their services, baseball’s stars and its rank and file are fixing for a fight.

The current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021. The conditions players feel are suppressing their earning power – a luxury tax that serves as a de facto salary cap, a heavy reliance on analytics that leads to wage suppression, a segment of ownership disincentivized and perhaps ambivalent about winning – aren’t going away until then, if at all.

But players also realize that after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has led owners on a winning streak that’s spanned two CBAs, they won’t be inclined to give back their gains.

So players are increasingly prepared to walk away in order to take the power back.

“Right now, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent, after ’21,” Phillies reliever Pat Neshek told USA TODAY Sports. “I won’t be around, so I don’t have a horse in the race. I don’t want to see a strike.

“But there’s always kind of been that handshake agreement where we’re still going to value the older guys and not just totally (expletive) on them. And that’s what’s happening. So, I think you’re going to have to burn the whole system down and start with that.

“(Owners) have a lot more to lose than us, I think. The players have been talking about, for the last couple of years, putting money aside and I think we’re going to be ready for a fight. We’re willing to go multiple years and I don’t know if (owners) are willing to sacrifice.”

Neshek, 39, who expects he’ll retire (or be forced into it) after the 2020 season, joins Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright in his explicit use of the s-word, a tack many players don’t necessarily agree with. But virtually all agree that current conditions are untenable.

While industry revenues topped $10 billion in 2018, average salaries remained flat and players’ percentage of revenue continued to fall, all while clubs have been shy handing out long-term deals and eager to manipulate the service time of elite players to delay their payday.


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