Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 31, 2019

Trouble Is Brewing For The Great Game

A NOTE TO READERS: The next post will be delayed by one day, until Monday. The regular schedule resumes this time next week. Thanks as always for your support.

The last day of January arrives. The final game of the NFL season, with its eleven minutes of action buried deep within three and one-half hours of pageantry and multi-million dollar television advertising buys that will mostly be forgotten before the final whistle blows, is just days away. The NHL is back from its All-Star break, while the NBA is preparing for its own. With teams in both leagues having played more than sixty percent of their regular season schedules, thoughts are turning to the springtime playoffs for our two major arena sports. Yet amidst all this, when the calendar turns to the second month of the year, the Great Game nudges its way back onto the grand stage of our sports, preparing to stake its annual claim on the attention of fans in every corner of the land. For the advent of February means that the start of spring training is just a fortnight away.

But for the second year in a row, this passage on the calendar is not a time to celebrate for scores of veteran baseball players who are free agents, a list that includes both names that are instantly recognizable to even casual fans and others whose faithful are limited to immediate family members and diehard partisans of their most recent team. Of the top fifty free agents, as ranked by the pundits at CBSSports.com, fifteen remain unsigned. That number includes the two names at the top of the list, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, as well as the second-ranked starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel and the number one relief hurler in the rankings, closer Craig Kimbrel. Move beyond the marquee names and the situation is worse, with exactly one-half of 274 free agents still without contracts according to ESPN, at a time when all would expect to be finalizing travel arrangements to either Florida or Arizona.

As grim as they are, those raw numbers disguise the depth of the problem facing the players. Forty-five of those who have signed have inked minor league contracts, meaning that while they now have a spring training destination they have no guarantee of breaking camp with the big club in late March. Another forty-eight have only been able to negotiate one-year deals, and thus will find themselves back among the scores of contract-seekers come next offseason. Earlier this week the front page of Major League Baseball’s website was overrun with stories of free agents agreeing to one-year contracts. There was Neil Walker going to the Marlins, former All-Star pitcher Greg Holland, who was tremendous for the Nationals down the stretch last season, signing with the Diamondbacks, shortstop Freddy Galvis joining the Blue Jays, and reliever Shawn Kelley finding a short-term home in the Rangers clubhouse. Of all the free agents who have signed contracts so far, only three – pitchers Patrick Corbin (six years, Nats) and Nathan Eovaldi (four years, Red Sox), and outfielder AJ Pollock (five years, Dodgers) – have inked deals that run longer than three years.

The owners and general managers of all thirty teams repeat the mantra that the new parsimony toward free agents is the result of all the advanced metrics now used to evaluate players. Those statistical measures tell front offices that almost every player’s peak years come before he turns thirty. Why, the men with the checkbooks ask, should they pay huge sums for steadily declining performance?

The answer is that doing so is consistent with the system of compensation that has been negotiated between the owners and the Players Association. A player is bound to his original team for his first three years of service, and even a phenom who becomes a breakout star will play for, relatively speaking, a pittance for those seasons. After three years the player is eligible for arbitration, but since he is still tied to his first team, that unpleasant process only slightly increases a player’s leverage in contract negotiations. Only after completing six years of service does one qualify for free agency. The implicit understanding of this system is that a player spends six years essentially working for whatever his club want to pay him, and in return gets rewarded in free agency.  That reward might take the form of a nine-figure contract for a superstar, or a deal far more modest financially but with a term that at least ensures several years of employment for an accomplished journeyman.

There is a legitimate debate about whether that system makes sense, since it often produces results where a free agent contract is essentially a reward for past performance, and the team paying that prize is different from the one that got the benefit of a player’s earlier heroics. But the time to have that debate is when negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement.

Instead owners have felt free to game the front end of the system to their advantage, by delaying the initial callup of a promising minor leaguer in order to gain an extra season of service time in his long march to the promised land of free agency. Now they are reneging on the promise at the back-end of the system, knowing that until the current agreement between MLB and the MLBPA expires in 2021 there is nothing the players can do about it.

It doesn’t take advanced metrics to know that a ten-year contract for a thirty-two-year-old player, like the ones the Yankees gave Alex Rodriguez in 2007 or the Angels gave Albert Pujols six seasons ago, is going to end badly. But refusing to budge beyond a single year for a player who is twenty-nine, like Toronto’s new shortstop Galvis, is taking the advanced metrics rationale to a silly extreme.

That’s especially clear when fans see the extremely limited market for Harper and Machado, with as few as three teams reportedly bidding on either player. Because of their prodigious talent, they made The Show far earlier than most rookies. Harper played his first game for the Nationals while still a teenager, and Machado joined the Orioles just after his twentieth birthday. Both thus enter free agency at age twenty-six, three or four years sooner than is typical. An eight or even ten-year contract for either of them carries far less back-end risk than the boondoggles lavished on A-Rod and Pujols. But both Bryce and Manny remain unsigned.

The odds are still in favor of Harper and Machado doing quite well, though the once prominent talk of $400 million contracts is likely now but a memory. The biggest impact of this new reality is on the scores of players who are not superstars. The Players Association projects that as many as a dozen teams will begin the new season with smaller payrolls than last year, while only a third as many will see significant increases in total salaries. This after the percentage of revenues spent on player salaries dropped last season for the fourth year in a row, to its lowest number since 2012.

As noted earlier, for now there is nothing the players can do but seethe. But any owner or GM who thinks that this new approach to free agent negotiations doesn’t have a downside is no student of the Great Game’s history, which includes protracted and ugly labor disputes. When the current collective bargaining agreement expires, baseball will have enjoyed more than a quarter-century of labor peace. The odds of that continuing grow longer every day.


Responses

  1. 40 years ago I used to work with a guy, Will (we called him Won’t), who always said that if you want to see the future of Labor in this country all you have to do is read the Sports page of your daily newspaper. What happens to the athletes is what will be the trend for labor-management negotiations everywhere else. It’s not looking good down the road for ballplayers, or the rest of us, right now, Mike. Thanks for your insight on what lays ahead for the sport and the fans of the game.
    Ω

    • Thanks Allan. I would say that Will, or Won’t, had a pretty good handle on things.

      M-

      • He was a Blue-collar philosopher for sure.
        Ω


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