BRADENTON — Mike Napoli packed his things earlier this week and flew to Arizona. He had a contract with the Indians. Okay, it was a minor-league contract, but he was headed to a big-league camp.
That was encouraging for the two-dozen unemployed pro baseball players he left behind at IMG Academy in the spring training camp organized by the Major League Baseball Players Association.
"Just trying to continue my career," said infielder Chris Johnson, 33, an eight-year major-league veteran who spent 2017 at Triple A in the Orioles system.
The camp is run like a normal big-league camp. On Tuesday, the players played their first game against a team from Japan.
There are major-league free agents like first baseman Lucas Duda, who ended the 2017 season with the Rays, and relief pitcher Tyler Clippard (Mitchell High), who pitched in 67 games last summer and ended the season with the Astros.
There are minor-league free agents like infielder Joey Terdoslavich, who last played in the big leagues in 2015, and there are players like catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who played 10 games last year with the Blue Jays and ended his season in the Mexican League, and Nolan Reimold, the former Orioles outfielder who played independent ball last summer.
All share Johnson's goal.
"I just want to play," Saltalamacchia said. "Let me be an insurance policy. Let me come to spring training and earn a spot."
It was a bad offseason to be a free agent of any ability. A record low were signed. Why? That is open for debate.
Some theorize the owners were in collusion to keep payroll down, which is why top-level free agents like Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb and Mike Moustakas remained unsigned.
Others point the finger at the analytics, which is ridding the game of marginal players. Others see it as a shift by teams to go with younger players.
Tony Clark, head of the players union, has another theory: tanking.
"In any free-agent offseason there are only so many landing spots for free agents," he said Tuesday at IMG. "When you have clubs who appear to be less interested in being the last team standing than not, and the market itself is being flooded with talent that would otherwise be landing spots for potential free agents, everything starts to shift and move in directions that are a little bit more difficult to anticipate."
For years, Clark said, all owners and the commissioner's office talked about was competitive balance. He said the competitive spirit was the backdrop to all labor negotiations. But now, Clark said, with what he estimates as "two-thirds" of the 30 big-league teams willing to not field competitive teams, maybe that needs to be addressed. He added that there is a difference between scaling back as a means to rebuild a competitive team and tanking.
"I did not anticipate being in that world," Clark said, "and so if that is the world we are going to be in moving forward there are some conversations that need to be had."
That, of course, is of no help to any of the current free agents. Instead, they work out wondering if their phone will ever ring again with an offer.
"I'm just asking for an opportunity, really," Johnson said. "I'm not asking for a million bucks. I'm asking to play for the bare minimum and have the opportunity to continue my career."
When asked if he believes there is collusion among the owners, Saltalamacchia said, "I can't answer that."
Then he laughed.
"I don't know (why so many free agents are left unsigned). If I knew I wouldn't be here, that's for sure."
The players are growing anxious. The exhibition season began last Friday and teams are nearing the first round of cuts. That means the regulars will be getting more playing time, and that means even fewer opportunities for the group at IMG.
"I'm not upset with anybody," Johnson said. "I just want to play baseball. I'm not upset with the union. I'm not upset with the owners, GMs, teams. I don't get involved too much in why it's happening. I'm here to stay ready, hit some baseballs and have some fun."
Contact Roger Mooney at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @rogermooney50.