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MLB lockout: Why increasing minimum salary should be players’ top priority

Build from the bottom up

Oakland Athletics v Texas Rangers
Won’t somebody please think of the rookies???
Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Any conversation about a sports work stoppage includes some form of this exchange:

  • Person A: Players already have huge salaries, isn’t that enough?
  • Person B: Yes but the career of a pro athlete is extremely short so they have to make their money quickly, and it’s also unpredictable since they can get injured at any time so they need to bank those earnings while they can.

The disconnect in these discussions is that we’re usually thinking about the stars on nine-figure contracts, or other players making 5 or 10 million per season. Sure the principle is the same, but one year of such a high salary is more money than most of us will ever see in our lives, which makes it harder to muster an appropriate amount of sympathy.

But most players don’t fit that description. No athlete’s career is shorter or more unpredictable than the ones on minimum salaries, in the bullpen or at the end of the bench or shuttling back and forth to Triple-A. Some of them will go on to longer tenures and bigger contracts, but others will only spend a year or two in the majors after working their entire lives at the craft. Some might only get a month, or a week, and every day’s prorated paycheck counts.

Want to make sure athletes as a whole get their chance to bank some due earnings in a turbulent profession? The absolute top priority should be raising the minimum salary. And not incrementally to keep up with inflation, not a nice little bump of an extra hundred thousand. Double it, across the board, or maybe more.

The first-year minimum in 2021 was $570,500. For next summer the league is proposing $615K, and the players want $775K. That’s still too low. Make it a million, at least.

Now a reliever who spends two full years in the bigs will walk away with more than two million in lifetime salaries instead of slightly over one million. Life-changing money, and without waiting six seasons for the privilege of reaching free agency. A Quad-A player doing a few weeks of fill-in duty will get twice as much per day in what might be his only trip to the majors ever. This is where the cruelly finite nature of an athlete’s career gets most important in terms of earnings, not the varying shades of generational wealth at the top of the spectrum, even though the high-earners also fundamentally deserve similar consideration.

But wait, there’s more! All player salaries are based on a starting point, so bump up that initial baseline and you’ll increase all of your future salaries too. When you reach arbitration and get your first raise there, it’ll be a raise over the million-plus you were already getting in pre-arb. All your arby salaries just went up! When you reach free agency, you can remind prospective employers that you’ll be replacing a million-dollar minimum spot on the roster, instead of a half-million-dollar spot, making it less cost-effective for teams to punt roster spots on scrubs just to save a buck.

In that way it’s almost like the first stage of a salary floor. Not exactly, but to the same extent that the Competitive Balance Tax is sort of like the first stage of a salary cap. It’s flirting with the idea in a roundabout way, since directly confronting it is still a complete non-starter.

The only downside for players here would be potential fear that raising the bottom salaries too much would cost them at the top, by suppressing free agent spending. That seems mathematically unlikely.

Last year the Oakland A’s had something like a dozen roster spots going toward minimum-salary players, especially before stocking up on veterans at the trade deadline. That’s not an unusual distribution, and any higher than that would probably signify a rebuilding team who already isn’t spending much and needs to be coaxed into trying harder anyway. Doubling those dozen salaries would have cost the A’s around $7 million, which isn’t nothing, but it doesn’t seismically shift the balance of the payroll even for a small-budget club. It’s the price of one decent free agent, like maybe a solid setup man or a serviceable third outfielder. It’s not even 1 WAR on the open market.

Raising the minimums isn’t going to stop stars from getting bonkers mega-deals. At worst, a few low/midlevel free agents might take a small hit, but even that won’t sting as badly because they would have already spent the previous six years getting those higher minimum salaries themselves.

Players say they want to get the younger guard paid more in the earlier years of their careers. There are multiple ways to approach that issue, but the single most effective one would be to target the minimum salary and raise it as substantially as possible. It’s exactly the high tide that would lift all the other boats, including a resultant bump for arbitration payouts, and focusing on anything else is attacking a symptom instead of the source.

One real-life idea on the table right now is an extra bonus pool for the top few pre-arbitration players in the league, worth a total of $10-15 million or so. That’s pocket change in this conversation, and if that’s the plan for getting younger players paid then the owners have already won.

Another method (which didn’t gain traction with owners this winter) could involve shortening the arbitration clock, so that young players either get to arby sooner, or spend less time there before reaching free agency. That would help some players, but it would still ignore the ones who only stick for a couple years, and last I checked they were part of the union too.

The players should ditch those strategies for now and put all their momentum behind doubling the minimum, while also continuing their push to raise the luxury tax so that this win doesn’t slow total salary growth. That path will yield a far higher overall return than any bonus pool pittance, while more fully and genuinely addressing their stated goal of finally taking care of the little guy.

Athletes’ careers are short and unpredictable, so let’s make sure they get paid as soon as possible when they make it to the top league in the world.