As union chief, Tony Clark has plenty to be worried about, but does there have to be one right answer? Photo from Matt King/Getty Images
I’ve been having trouble thinking of topics to write about this offseason. Sure, I don’t have a ton of free time either, but I’d still like to try and get my thoughts and opinions out there. If we’re being honest, however, there just hasn’t been a lot to cover.
Sure, we’re just coming off a holiday break where there was even less to discuss, but for going on two offseasons now, the main topic of conversation has been why nothing is happening, as opposed to what is actually happening.
On a macro level, this probably isn’t great for the game. I have no problem admitting it, but while some may be ashamed to, fans love the offseason. It’s a time where they get to be armchair GM’s, masterminding theoretical trades and signings. It’s when fans for every team have hope, even for the worst of the worst, and it’s with moves that hope is often cultivated or lost. With every week that passes with no activity, that hope dims, consternation grows, and the state of the game is seen in a negative light, which is often a problem for Major League Baseball. It draws the conversation away from the field and into boardrooms, executive suites, and labor meetings, leaving fans to consider revenues and expenses, contracts, and market forces, which many just don’t want to hear about—unless you’re me that is.
The common refrain from many fans is that they just can’t muster sympathy for either side in a fight between millionaires and billionaires, but I’ve personally never seen it that way. These conversations are all relative, and the number of zeroes has never mattered to me. The fact of the matter is, while I do just fine for myself, there are people who make more than me, while there are workers in other industries who would be upset with me if I complained about my pay scale and working conditions.
With that reasoning in mind, it’s near impossible to dismiss the problems facing players in the current Major League Baseball market. While many Pirates’ fans have continually complained about how the team does business, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that this is not simply a Pittsburgh issue, but one spanning the entire league.
Revenues have reached all-time highs, while the percentage of those revenues funneled to the players appears to at least be in question. Payroll dropped between the past two seasons for the first time since 2010, and this offseason is showing to be no different. In a sea change, even big markets teams like the Cubs are talking about tight budgets and the need to be financially smart, while the Dodgers have been slashing payroll for the second offseason in a row. Cleveland has made some moves with cost containment in mind after spending out of their comfort zone for a few seasons, going as far as bandying their best players in trade talks, while a strong Mariner team has been dismantled this offseason. The main driver, for the biggest spending teams at least, has been harsher Luxury Tax penalties—negotiated in the most recent CBA—that have acted as a de facto salary cap for the teams operating in that stratosphere.
Not only does it appear that teams are determined to spend less, but new strategies, innovations, and market forces have acted against the players’ best interests.
On the field, teams have decided to give younger players a chance more than ever before. More roster spots occupied by younger players on minimum salaries means fewer spots for veterans at higher salaries. Teams have become less interested in veterans altogether, as analytics and better understanding of aging curves have made teams more reticent to pay for what a player has done as opposed to what they’re going to do. Other strategies such as the opener and increased bullpen usage lessen the need for starting pitchers, which traditionally are the higher earners (to be fair, relievers seem to be the only pieces valued on the market now, so those effects may have yet to have been quantified).
As for off the field, loopholes such as service-time manipulation and increased use of shortened disabled list stints work to suppress salaries. For example, keep a player down long enough and six years of service before free agency effectively becomes seven, pushing out that player’s big payday one more year, at which point teams are hesitant to pay big salaries and players are more likely to be past their primes anyway. One way to counteract this on the player’s side is to take early extensions, and while they provide increased security, more often than not they benefit the team and not the player, as they give up higher future earnings to cash-in now, much to the chagrin of their agents.
On the market, teams have found that it benefits them to wait players out, effectively lowering the price they eventually have to pay. This has played a part in the increase of one-year deals, as last offseason 57 out of 108 major league deals (by my count) were for one year, while 42 out of 68 deals currently agreed upon during this offseason are the same length. This only serves to increase free agent classes every year, which leads to substitutes on the market, as well as increased supply, which lowers the price teams have to pay. Also, teams are using trades to fill holes on their rosters, as Buster Olney chronicled recently, decreasing the need for veteran free agents.
Okay, after spending all that time and words explaining the problems facing players, it’s about time to get to the point of the article and its title—is it possible to recognize these issues, while also admitting teams are probably being smart?
I’ve made it no secret I align myself with how the Pirates do business, but it has nothing to do with being a fan or front office apologist; I simply feel it’s the best strategy. Several teams have shown—including the Cubs, Astros, and Royals—that the best path may be tearing it down and building it up from the inside, and copying the successful teams is always a popular strategy in sports. In my opinion, free agency is inefficient and foolhardy, but this is probably partly born from my personality of being risk-averse and cost conscious, and if we’re being realistic, isn’t this simply what teams are doing?
It seems all clubs now have come to the conclusion that it’s not good business to pay a player for what they’ve done, but for what they are going to do. Also, many feel that it makes sense to pay less for close to or equal value (see the Ivan Nova trade, for instance). If you ask me, those tenets of operation seem completely reasonable. As I watched countless hours of Winter Meetings coverage on MLB Network, the constant cry from former players and front office personnel advocating for teams to spend money seemingly simply because they can just rang so silly to me. As consumers, I can’t imagine they would feel it’s a good idea to pay the price of a new car for one that has over 100,000 miles, and if they feel Hunts is just as good as Heinz for a little less money, well I can’t blame them for making the same decisions—or teams—because I make them every day myself.
These practices apply to marginal players, but even those who are probably worth big deals—the likes of Bryce Harper and Manny Machado for example—are only being pursued by a couple of teams willing and able to shell out big dollar, long-term contracts. The dissent amongst detractors of this reality is palpable, but again, what if this hesitation is just solid decision making and not bottom-line tracking? Commitments that are too long and too large can handcuff even teams with more money than others, making it hard to fill in a competent roster around an onerous contract. Possibly proving this point, data exists showing it’s probably a bad idea to commit too large a percentage of payroll to one player. Neal Huntingdon made this very argument before trading Andrew McCutchen and was lambasted, but again, what if instead of being stingy he was just being smart?
I suppose the feeling of wanting to see these revenues spent come from two different places—that of a fan and that of an advocate for labor. Many fans simply don’t care about the financial side of sports—they want their team to have the best players, and they don’t care how it happens or what it takes, and this goal is usually equated with spending more money. The supporters of labor probably come from it differently. No matter the number of zeroes on a check, anyone who has ever advocated for labor in the face of management sees the fact that the players are the product in a multi-billion-dollar business, and they deserve their fair share of the pie. However, in a sport without a salary cap and no agreed upon percentage of revenue—like the NBA and NFL—how is this achieved? This is why the next round of labor discussions is so important.
While the veteran ranks have always been the union’s concern, is it now becoming obvious they just aren’t going to see the money they had become accustomed to? If this is the case—and it seems likely—how do the players see their share of revenues rise? The answer is obvious and difficult all at the same time. Younger players need to see a bigger, fairer share, but how exactly does this happen?
The current system is upside-down. MVP contenders like Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts, and Aaron Judge are playing on minimum salaries and early extensions, while albatross contracts like Albert Pujols, Matt Kemp, and Chris Davis are clogging up payrolls, taking roster spots, or being used as throw-ins for trades to exchange assets or clear space—moves that are commonplace for fans of the NBA, but are just starting to become en vogue in MLB. Somehow, players that make a pittance compared to their veteran counterparts need an increased share, but the solution could come in any multitude of ways.
First and foremost, minor leaguers—who aren’t even represented by the union—need to see more. While players not on 40-man rosters don’t count toward payroll, increasing their wages would be seen as a goodwill gesture that would be a positive starting point in conversations. Next, raising the major league minimum—which a large majority of the league plays for—as well as salaries for roster spots 26 to 40 would go a long way in closing the gap between increased revenues and shrinking payrolls. Finally, whether it’s changing service time rules, restricted free agency, reaching arbitration faster, decreasing years of service before free agency, or any multitude of choices, the main goal should be to get younger players to their big paydays faster. This would help players earn salaries that are more commensurate of their abilities and production. While this would certainly take a major shift in philosophy from the union, they need to make some major changes, lest they get pummeled at the bargaining table yet again.
Many arguments are seen as black and white, right or wrong. In this discussion, it often feels like it’s either “poor players that make more in one game than I do in a lifetime, however will they manage,” or “if teams were really committed to winning, they would spend”. Is it possible the answer is somewhere in the middle, that both could be right? I feel like this possibility isn’t given enough credence, so hopefully this gives you something to consider while we wait another week for the next free agent signing.