MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred promises pace changes by next week

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred says proposed rules changes to speed pace of play will be in place by the start of big league exhibition games on Feb. 23.

The commissioner has hoped for an agreement with the players’ association but has the right to implement last offseason’s proposal to install 20-second pitch clocks and institute stricter limits on mound visits.

MLB made a proposal to the union last month to abandon a pitch clock for this season as part of a three-year phase-in of new rules.

“There are going to be rule changes with respect to pace of play for the 2018 season. You’ll know about those rule changes before we start playing spring training games,” Manfred said Thursday at Tropicana Field. “It’s either going to be a specific agreement on specific rule changes or there are going to be rule changes that we put in place as a result of the provision in the basic agreement that allows to make that change.”

Under baseball’s labor contract, unilateral playing rules changes can be made with one offseason of advance notice. That means only the stricter rules could be put in place absent an agreement.

While MLB could decide to implement just a pitch clock or harsher mound visit limits and not both, severing part of the proposal could trigger a grievance by the union that would leave a decision to an arbitrator.

“I don’t see anything about those pace of play discussions that should be a labor relations negative over the long haul. I really don’t,” Manfred said. “We have gone out of our way to solicit player input. We’ve delayed taking any action. We’ve made clear from the very beginning that our strong preference was to have an agreement with the players.”

Discussions have not been helped by a slow free-agent market that’s angered the union.

Dozens of free agents, including star pitcher Jake Arrieta and sluggers J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas and Eric Hosmer, remain unsigned as major league spring training camps opened this week in Florida and Arizona.

“It’s just a different market this year. It just seems to be crawling at a snail’s pace,” Chicago Cubs star Kris Bryant said.

Manfred defended management, insisting teams are merely reacting to the market.

“Markets operate differently year to year. It’s particularly true in our business, given there’s different players, clubs with different needs. “This market has been different, in terms of timing. But we believe that players who are major league players will eventually get signed, whatever that timetable turns out to be,” Manfred said.

“We wish them the best of luck in that regard,” Manfred added “But I can tell you one thing for certain: The clubs have conducted themselves in a manner that’s completely consistent with the agreement we made with the MLBPA.”

The commissioner reiterated that he believes “major league-quality players are going to get signed.”

“There’s a difference between not having a job and having an offer for a job and not be prepared to accept that offer. There’s a lot of activity out there in the market,” Manfred said.

“Drawing lines in the sand, based on a perception that your market value is something different than what the market is telling you your value is, that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he added. “It is a fact that markets dictate value. Values are not dictated by big thick three-ring binders and rhetoric about who’s better than who. They’re dictated by markets. That’s the system we negotiated.”

AP Baseball Writers Janie McCauley and Ronald Blum contributed to this report.

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