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SAN FRANCISCO — Nearly two weeks ago, on the eve of their annual FanFest, the Giants offered up their players and coaches and top baseball executives to the media. While shooting the breeze with newcomers and returning vets, I sneaked in a few labor questions. As you may have heard, the 2017-18 MLB offseason has been a news cycle with very little news.

I filed away some notes and figured that was the end of it. Surely, by the time Giants players began to arrive in Scottsdale, Arizona, for spring training, the talent pipeline would have come unclogged. Well, pitchers and catchers reported Tuesday, and had their first workouts Wednesday. And not a lot has changed.

This continues to be the worst year ever to be a Major League Baseball free agent.

According to ESPN’s tracker, as of Thursday afternoon, 90 of the 202 men who became free agents at the end of the 2017 season remain unsigned. (This number has slimmed slightly by the time you read this; for example, the Baltimore Orioles agreed to terms with pitcher Andrew Cashner on Thursday.)

This feels like a stunning ratio.

And it is. A writer named Ryan Pollack, who contributes to FanGraphs and Hardball Times, examined major- and minor-league deals signed through the end of January. He found that 2018 was the slowest offseason in 18 years, measured by total number of signings. In terms of percentage of available players signed, it was the slowest offseason in the history of free agency.

“I’m pretty surprised about it,” Giants first baseman Brandon Belt said at the media event. “This is the first year this has happened. We’re a couple weeks from spring training, and nobody has signed.”

Two weeks later, there is little cause for relief among the players.

We’re not just talking about utility infielders and setup men, either. According to ESPN’s free-agent rankings, 5 of the top 10 and 18 of the top 40 free agents are still looking for jobs. CBS Sports keeps a similar tally. It evaluates individual players differently, but the overall picture looks quite similar: 6 of the top 10, 17 of the top 40, all unemployed.

The lists include household names like J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alex Cobb.

“Hopefully, we get something ironed out, because there are a lot of really good star players that haven’t signed yet,” said Giants outfielder Austin Jackson, one of the fortunate free agents this year. “They’ve been a big reason that MLB is where it is now. Some of those guys are sitting at their house.”

It’s so bad that 20 free agents gathered at the IMG campus in Bradenton, Florida, on Wednesday to launch their own training camp. They’re calling it Camp Jobless. The freelancers say they want to get in shape for the season, optimistic they will eventually sign contracts. More veterans are expected to join them.

There was even, briefly, some talk of a league-wide strike of spring training this year. Could this all be heading toward another 1994, the year MLB lost its entire postseason to a work stoppage?

“No,” Giants executive vice president Brian Sabean said. “There’s a deal in place. You can have all the friction you want.”

As Sabean alluded, the 1994 mess played out in the absence of a collective bargaining agreement. There is no such vacuum now.

Shanahan at a glance

Age: 37

College career: Wide receiver at Texas

Coaching career: NFL assistant coach since 2004, offensive coordinator with Houston (2008-09), Washington (2010-13), Cleveland (2014) and Atlanta (2015-16)

Recognition: Assistant Coach of the Year, 2016

Pedigree: Son of former NFL coach Mike Shanahan


Grant Cohn's Inside the 49ers blog

So what the heck is going on, Brian? “I don’t even know how to answer the question,” Sabean said. “We’ve all got our conspiracy theories of sorts. It sounds like the Kennedy assassination.”

In the absence of a Warren (Spahn) Commission, let’s explore a few theories. MLB executives have argued that this is a natural “market correction” — that salaries had gotten out of whack and were due to regress. Labor advocates might wonder why such a correction was necessary when MLB revenues surpassed $10 billion in 2017 — setting an industry record for the 15th consecutive year. Despite this glorious cash flow, more teams than ever are slashing payroll and tanking, NBA-style, with an eye to the future.

Some have even whispered the word most offensive to the ears of team owners. The C-word: “collusion.” How, they wonder, can so many solid ballplayers be receiving so little attention from 30 individual clubs? It certainly isn’t hard to imagine the league’s pooh-bahs committing such an offense. Arbitrators found them guilty of collusion in three separate cases filed between 1986 and 1988; MLB had to pay a total of $280 million in damages.

There are, however, some fact-based reasons to steer clear of someone like, say, Arrieta, who will turn 32 in March and whose innings steadily declined over the past three seasons. Many analytics people have been arguing that investing in young, prime-of-career talent is more cost effective than relying on veterans.

“I’ve read a Buster Olney article (for ESPN), and he was talking about the way that GMs and upper management are evaluating players now is different,” new Giants third baseman Evan Longoria said. “They’re putting a different dollar figure on it, based on those analyses. I can’t really say if that’s wrong or not.”

No question, teams have saddled themselves in recent years with huge, long-term payouts to players who almost immediately demonstrated they weren’t worth it. Like the 10-year, $240 million contract the Angels gave Albert Pujols in 2012, or the four-year, $72 million the Rangers gave Prince Fielder in 2017.

Some of the biggest names still dangling on the free-agent market are older players whose best years may be behind them.

But here’s the real culprit: the current collective bargaining agreement, which states that a player isn’t eligible for free agency until he reaches six years of major-league service. That’s an improbably long apprenticeship for an athlete. Yes, baseball players tend to have longer careers than their peers in the NFL and the NBA. But because of the minor-league system, they frequently take longer to reach the bigs.

If the new model does, in fact, lead teams to devalue older players and cyclically restock their rosters with young guys, consider what that means under the current CBA. A team can control a player throughout his prime years, then, when he finally hits free agency, cast him loose and start again with a promising rookie.

It’s a wonderful system if you’re a baseball team. If you’re a player, it increases the likelihood that you’ll wind up like pitcher Lance Lynn or second baseman Neil Walker, on the wrong side of 30 and waiting for your phone to ring.

Nick Hundley, the Giants’ backup catcher, praised the MLB Players Association and assigned no blame for the six-year rule. “It’s something we’ll deal with in 2021,” he said, referring to the expiration of the current labor deal. “Contractually, we agreed. Nobody in that room was forced to agree on anything.”

Longoria came closer to being critical. “I think that it will correct itself. But I think that as a union, we definitely are kind of learning our lesson, in terms of the importance of the negotiations of the CBA,” he said.

The guys I spoke with know they are among the lucky ones. They have jobs. They’d like to believe that when the regular season draws closer and teams get itchier to fill needs, the rest of the capable free agents will find homes, too.

“I mean, they have to,” Longoria said. “Those guys are not gonna not get jobs. Nobody’s not gonna want a Yu Darvish or a Mike Moustakas or an Eric Hosmer. If you want to win, you sign those guys.”

Indeed, Darvish signed with the Cubs last Saturday. Moustakas and Hosmer, who combined for 63 home runs and 179 RBIs with the Royals last year, remain eligible for Camp Jobless.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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