Baseball’s longest winter ended, finally, with Jake Arrieta in Philadelphia and Mike Moustakas back in Kansas City and Carlos Gonzalez returning to Colorado, all for millions of dollars less than we figured four months ago. We’re one Alex Cobb signing away from having all of the significant pegs being placed in the appropriate holes. For those of you who prefer baseball to the business of such, Opening Day is two weeks from Thursday. Play ball, finally. Enjoy.
But even as we begin to focus on what will be the themes of the season — on Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton hitting back-to-back in the Bronx, on Bryce Harper and Manny Machado trying to produce one more time for the teams that drafted them — there’s no way to deny that what happened this winter (or, rather, what didn’t happen) is more important to the sport going forward.
People inside baseball, including those who work for clubs and some who represent players, believe the next three or four years are a monumental time for the sport, perhaps more important than when it took steps to reduce the impact of performance-enhancing drugs a dozen years ago. A significant number believe the chances of a strike at the conclusion of this collective bargaining agreement, which runs through the 2021 season, are very good. Some think it’s inevitable.
That might seem a long way off. But watch the calendar fly.
When the current deal was struck in December 2016, the players were not inclined to refuse to go to work. Now they have lived through this winter, and now they have a different perspective.
Review some of what happened. It’s all within the framework of the current CBA, but the players are, in some cases, stunned by how the machinations of the agreement worked in practice, at least for one winter.
Arrieta, a Cy Young-winning pitcher whose ERA over the previous three seasons ranked behind only Clayton Kershaw’s, wasn’t able to secure a deal that was even half of what Max Scherzer landed three offseasons earlier. Arrieta’s guarantee from the Phillies: three years and $75 million — four years and $135 million short of Scherzer (though Arrieta has an opt-out and a club option, either of which could be used to earn him a bit more).
The more striking have-nots might be Moustakas and Gonzalez. Each has something about which he can be happy: He’s returning to the only team he has ever known. Each has something about which he could be bitter: He turned down the one-year qualifying offer a team can extend to its outgoing free agents, which this year was worth $17.4 million. Moustakas, coming off a season in which he hit a Kansas City-record 38 homers, re-signed with the Royals for one year and $6.5 million. Gonzalez, a three-time all-star, re-signed with Colorado for one year and $8 million.
Some agents and players believe this offseason was just the start of behavior modification by ownership, that the way free agents were approached this winter changed drastically — with fewer, and in some cases no, offers and counteroffers exchanged. Therefore, they believe, the way free agents are valued (read: paid) is going to be radically different going forward. The sport won’t know for sure until another free agency period comes and goes, and the expected availability of both Machado and Harper — superstars who will be just 26 years old when they can shop their wares — could skew that market.
Still, “could” might be the operative word there. For either Machado or Harper to push past Stanton’s record $325 million deal, a pair of potential buyers might be needed. There is doubt in some corners that’ll happen.
So if baseball’s revenue is rising — and it is — but the players’ salaries aren’t following along in a commensurate manner, some see a need for fundamental change. The owners likely won’t offer it because, in their minds, they’re becoming smarter about how to spend their dollars, and a combination of analytics and economics is telling them that expensive players in their 30s aren’t as valuable as cheap players in their 20s.
So the players will have to push for change. To consider what that change might look like, first understand the way MLB salaries have been determined for generations. For the first three years of a player’s career, the club essentially assigns him a salary. For the next three, his salary is determined by arbitration — assessing his performance against other comparable players and coming up with a number. After six full seasons, barring an extension, he’s free.
So what’s the alternative? Would that be demanding that free agency be granted after, say, four years? That would, in theory, give players access to more money sooner in their careers. Two potential problems: Would small-market teams, those that rely on drafting and developing talent but can’t necessarily afford to play in free agency, approve such a plan? And if clubs are truly laying off the majority of free agents, would they necessarily be more prone to drive up bidding for players with track records two years shorter?
Is there any way, though, to shift at what age a player receives a heftier salary? Consider this: The top pick in the NBA draft can make roughly $44.5 million in his first five years in the league. Harper, the top pick in MLB’s 2010 draft, has spent just more than five years in the majors. Add in his $6.25 million signing bonus, and his total earnings — over five-plus years — is $32.525 million.
The players’ message, when it comes to negotiating, will have to be: If you’re not going to pay us on the back end, you need to pay us on the front. Ownership, of course, has little incentive to do that — without a work stoppage.
One other matter from this spring that puts the labor strife in focus: The players’ union has filed a grievance accusing four teams — Pittsburgh, Oakland, Miami and Tampa Bay — of failing to spend money they gain through revenue sharing on improving their rosters. The complaint, as I read it, isn’t as much intended to penalize those teams. It’s for the union to say, “We don’t like what’s going on, and we want to be clear about that” — and maybe if that opens up discussions now, there won’t be discussions with such gravity in 2021.
Put this all away for a while. The season is about to begin, and actual baseball on the field has a way of making us forget its problems. But even in those happy times — a double to the gap, a strikeout to seal a win — keep in mind the people who know exactly where this sport is headed are worried. The solutions must be devised not in four years, but much sooner, if not now.