BRADENTON, Fla. -- For veteran free-agent infielder Chris Johnson, the warning signs started months ago, when not only was he without a team, but the phone calls just weren't coming in.
"After you get past New Year's and haven't heard anything -- not even a little interest -- obviously you start to worry in the offseason. You're like, 'Man, is this it? Am I done? Am I not gonna be able to play anymore?'" Johnson said. "[When] you don't hear anything, and people start talking about '20 days until pitchers and catchers [report]' and things like that, then obviously you start to panic a little bit."
Johnson, 33, isn't alone. Nearly one week since Grapefruit and Cactus league play began, almost a third of the offseason's free agents in November are still without teams, which is why many of them are taking part in the Major League Baseball Players Association camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
It's the union's first spring training camp since the players' strike in 1995. Former Houston Astros manager Bo Porter is leading the workouts.
Former Astros manager Bo Porter on coaching at the MLBPA free agent camp: "The thought process was, if we're gonna do it, let's do it the way spring training is supposed to be run."
"I'm just asking for an opportunity, really. I'm not asking for a million bucks," said Johnson, who spent last season on a minor league deal with the Baltimore Orioles. "I'm asking to play for the bare minimum and just have an opportunity to continue my career. And I'm hearing a lot of the same stuff here."
A lot of theories have been tossed around as to why so many talented veteran free agents remain unsigned, including pitchers Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb, first baseman Lucas Duda, third baseman Mike Moustakas and outfielders Jon Jay and Carlos Gonzalez. One theory many in Bradenton suggested is that there's now too much of a reliance on metrics, versus intangibles like leadership.
"With the value of free agency and players that have major league experience -- it's something that you can't quantify," Porter said. "So when you look at bringing in veteran guys that have played the game at a high level and the guys that we have here -- these guys' careers aren't over with. It's just a matter of finding the right fit and getting them into camp and getting them an opportunity to continue to prove their value to the game."
MLBPA union representative Tony Clark believes that to be true with catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia, 32, who won a World Series with the Boston Red Sox in 2013 and is at the camp. Clark also acknowledged that having up to one-third of teams in full-on "rebuild mode" has also transformed the way the league is doing business.
"We have teams openly suggesting that they're not as interested in winning today's ballgame and they're not as interested in being the last team standing. I did not anticipate being in that world," Clark said. "So if that is the world we are going to be in, then there are going to need to be some conversations moving forward."
Players at the camp all wear black MLBPA jerseys. Their schedules are structured the same as a big league camp, starting with drills and fundamentals at 7:30 a.m.
The original intent wasn't to play any games, but the numbers of unsigned players continued to be high and the talent has been competitive enough to play some exhibition games, which are open to scouts, agents and the media. They're not sure how long the camp will run, but the hope is that all these players will be gone and signed with teams soon.
Dave Gallagher spent nine years in the big leagues, playing outfield for eight different teams. He is a coach at the MLBPA camp and has raved about the players' professionalism and attitude despite unfavorable circumstances -- but he worries about what will happen when there's no light at the end of the tunnel.
"The one thing I see, and I can see it from talking to these guys, is that they start to lose hope," Gallagher said. "And it's a little bit humiliating. I'm sure some of them don't understand it. To be honest with you, I don't understand it."