Last week, I wrote about the current offseason and why I think the free agent market has moved so slowly. My conclusion was that the top players simply aren’t the stars they think they are, and the salaries they want are completely ridiculous. The problem isn’t that teams aren’t willing to spend money – they’re making legitimate offers that sometimes even represent absurd overpays, and the players are turning those offers down. It’s unemployment by choice. And when the top free agents remain on the board, the rest of the market usually waits for them to settle.
In the days since, this story has continued to fester in the media:
- Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen suggested the players may have to go on strike. Last winter, Jansen signed the second-biggest contract ever for a relief pitcher. (The biggest was also signed that winter, by Aroldis Chapman.)
- Agent Brodie Van Wagenen threw a spectacular temper tantrum, in which he outright accused the owners of collusion and in no uncertain terms threatened a player strike. Agent Seth Levinson also suggested collusion by owners. So did agent Joshua Kusnick. Agent Scott Boras: “The difference between an accident and murder is intent. Teams are intentionally murdering season’s and fans are dying with it.” Holy shit that’s dark.
- The MLBPA had to issue an actual statement that no spring training boycott was being planned. However, MLBPA head Tony Clark accused teams of a “race to the bottom’’ that “threatens the integrity of the game.’’ In the meantime, the MLBPA is putting together a spring training camp for unsigned free agents.
As a laborer myself, it does not please me to side with ownership on this topic. There have been plenty of times in my life when I’ve looked at my own stagnant wage, and then at the increasing profits of my company, and wondered why I’m not seeing more of the money I helped them earn. So with that in mind, let’s get a few important points out of the way.
- I agree that the players should have their salaries tied to league revenue, like the NBA does. That assures that the workers are always getting their fair share of the pie.
- I also agree that players should earn more in their prime years than they currently do. It takes 6-7 seasons to reach free agency, and few get there before age 30. If we’re going to agree that it’s dumb to pay big for post-30 decline years, then logically we must also agree that they need to be paid more for their pre-30 prime years. Someone has to get paid some of the money that the owners make.
- Finally, I agree that minor leaguers should get a raise. The minors are a critical part of the league, and they’re treated like an afterthought. The mountainous profits of today’s MLB should help subsidize the development of tomorrow’s MLB.
These are legitimate gripes, and my intention here is not to downplay them. This isn’t the part where I complain about crybaby millionaires, or disingenuously try to compare my life to theirs. But you don’t fix these problems by throwing an extra $100 million at J.D. Martinez, or committing to Eric Hosmer until he’s 35 instead of 32 or 34. You fix them at the collective bargaining table.
Brandon Moss already made this point. The players blew it on the last Collective Bargaining Agreement, and now they have to sleep in the bed they made until 2022. The MLBPA has plenty of strength, but in recent years it has never used that power to address any of the problems I just listed. As Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated notes, the union “bargained for luxury, not labor.”
On the business side of the last CBA, the players succeeded in weakening the free agent qualifying offer system and slashing teams’ ability to spend on international amateurs, but they didn’t meaningfully raise the minimum salary. They focused on making the rich richer and the poor poorer, and now, shock of all shocks, the businesspeople who write the checks are more interested than ever in building around the youngsters whose salaries the MLBPA continues to stifle. In the previous CBA, from 2011, the players’ big victory was severely capping how much teams could spend on their draft picks. I can’t stress this enough – young players don’t earn their fair share because that’s how the MLBPA wants it and negotiates it. They’re more concerned with the proverbial home run at the top than anyone at the bottom, which is why a salary cap has always been a nonstarter.
The current offseason
With that scene set, let’s look back toward the current offseason. Suggesting there are over 100 free agents left is technically true but intentionally misleading. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo correctly points out, only 50-70 are legitimate major leaguers for 2018: “Let’s not equate free agent and big leaguer. Two different things.” Of that list, there are eight particularly impactful names still out there.
Five of those eight are clients of Scott Boras or his corporation. In fact, none of Boras’ 15 available clients have signed MLB contracts this winter, notes Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. This is exactly what Boras always does. He demands twice what his clients are worth, and then he waits until February if need be to get it. And usually he does get it! But the difference this winter is that most all of the biggest names are his, which means instead of a couple holdouts it’s virtually the entire top of the market frozen in suspense. Teams aren’t going to go sign Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn when they think they’re still in the running for Jake Arrieta. Even on the lower end, if Tony Watson holds out for more money then they’ll just go make a trade for a perfectly capable Ryan Buchter instead.
Another difference is that teams no longer appear as willing to bite. They’re finally figuring out that almost every 7-year free agent mega-contract turns out to be a massive mistake. Going significantly over $100 million for a veteran also turns out to be a poor investment nearly every time. Those huge contracts for aging players don’t lead to winning on the field.
Furthermore, engaging in a full rebuild has proven to be a highly successful strategy. You can make an argument that it led to the last four championships. The Astros and Cubs notably went scorched earth. The Royals sucked for decades until they were saved by a trio of Top 3 draft picks (Gordon, Hosmer, Moustakas) and the spoils of a brilliant star-for-prospects trade (Greinke). Even the Giants fueled their long run by sucking enough to nail three straight Top 10 picks (Lincecum, Bumgarner, Posey) along with other homegrown talent (Cain, Sandoval, Crawford, Belt, Panik). In today’s sport, you win by building from within, and fans know it. Note the lack of recent championships for the Dodgers, who spent the last several years distributing historic amounts of money.
But even with more teams looking to tank, the offers are still out there. Hosmer, Martinez, and Yu Darvish could each have nine-figure contracts yesterday if they wanted. But Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports Darvish started out looking for Greinke/Price money, even though those pitchers were (at time of signing) Cy Youngs who consistently threw 200+ innings with no major injuries (Darvish is 0-for-3 on that checklist). Martinez thinks he’s worth $200 million because he hit a bunch of dingers in the Year of the Dinger in one of the dingeriest parks in the league.
If those three big names had accepted those generous offers, would we even be having this conversation? How many more guys would have signed already if that trio had stopped clogging up the market a month ago? There was only one nine-figure free agent contract last winter, for Yoenis Cespedes, and nobody blinked because the other available players didn’t merit that type of outlay, just as these ones don’t. Who’s fault is it when an $80 million player turns down $100+ million?
I’d have more sympathy for the players’ grievances if they were making the right ones. But they’re not lamenting the plight of pre-arbitration players, nor minor leaguers. They’re complaining that today’s top nine-figure contract offers aren’t high enough into the ninth figure, for players who objectively, statistically, categorically don’t deserve the ninth figure to begin with. If this was next winter, and prime superstars like Clayton Kershaw, Bryce Harper, and Manny Machado were being shortchanged, then that would be different.
For the life of me, I don’t understand how any of this is a story. All I see happening right now is that 2018 is the year when Scott Boras took the entire sport of baseball hostage, helped out by the MLBPA laying a brick on the last CBA. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that Boras’ fellow agents and the MLBPA chief are the ones leading the charge to blame anyone but themselves.