Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 3, 2020

A Long Cold Winter Awaits Baseball’s Middle Class

As the Great Game moves into the hot stove season, the focus as always will be on a handful of top-tier free agents and potential trade chips, players who are believed capable of serving as a franchise’s foundation for success in pennant chases for years to come. Whether next week or next month, when word comes of this blockbuster multi-player deal or that mega-million dollar contract, fans of this winter’s perceived winners of the offseason will rejoice at the perspicacity and daring of their club’s general manager even as they prepare to cheer their newest hero.

Not every marquee move works out as planned, and some of those cheers will likely morph into the Bronx variety in time. But even if the path to an anticipated championship turns instead into a dead end, the headliners of this year’s offseason will still make out just fine. Whatever uniforms the likes of DJ LeMahieu, Trevor Bauer, J.T. Realmuto, and a handful of other players are wearing come next season, their new contracts will be guaranteed to pay them handsomely. For the far larger next tier of ballplayers though, the hot stove may never get beyond lukewarm between now and Spring Training.

That has been the case for several years now. Last offseason was a bit better from the players’ perspective, causing some to hope that owners were loosening their purse strings, perhaps to create a less hostile environment for coming negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement. But even if those hopes were well-founded and not mere fantasy, they were thoroughly dashed by the pandemic. A truncated season without fans in the stands saddled franchises with heavy losses of somewhere between a buck and a half and untold billions. That absurd range is offered only partly in jest, because the full extent of financial hemorrhaging remains unknown since owners steadfastly refuse to open their books to the Players Association. Yet while the actual number remains hidden, there’s no doubt that significant losses were incurred. Along with the uncertainty still surrounding next season, that gives front offices a ready-made basis for keeping checkbooks tightly closed in the coming weeks.

Like an unwelcome early snowfall, the first effects of what’s expected to be a parsimonious winter were seen this week, when MLB marked the deadline for offering contracts to players not signed to multi-year deals and not yet eligible for free agency. Those with less than three years of major league service time could sign what’s offered or look for another job, while players with between three and six years of service had the option of going to arbitration. But whether eligible for arbitration or not, a player who was not tendered a contract offer by his club by late Wednesday afternoon became a free agent, which is to say, unemployed. This week fifty-nine players were non-tendered, cut loose from their major league team. That’s a record number, though less than some had feared in part because another fifty-nine – also a record – took the first offer they received from their franchise rather than risk having it withdrawn. Some players were also believed to have been wary of an arbitration process that will look at statistics from a season of just sixty games.

Adding almost five dozen more names to the available free agent talent pool clearly strengthens the bargaining position of every general manager. Since that number includes players like 27-year-old outfielder David Dahl, an All-Star in 2019 who the Rockies decided was too expensive at a likely arbitration salary in the very affordable $3 million range, and 28-year-old Kyle Schwarber, a fan favorite during the Cubs’ 2016 postseason march to a championship who isn’t much on defense but would seem to be a perfect fit for a club in need of a left-handed DH at $5 million or less, the advantage to front offices throughout the majors is very real. Rather than the antiquated image of fans gathered around the proverbial hot stove comparing notes on their favorite players and waiting for winter to pass, this offseason might be better symbolized by shoppers – GMs, that is – rushing to Boston’s Downtown Crossing for a visit to Filene’s Basement in its heyday, eager to scoop up bargains among the now more than 230 free agents.

Between now and the start of Spring Training, assuming for the moment that in 2021 the Great Game has a preseason that is reasonably recognizable and commences at more or less its usual time, websites and sports pages will trumpet the big new contracts signed by the top names in this free agent class. But the story behind those headlines seems certain to be about the growing financial gap between that handful of premium players and baseball’s large middle class of highly skilled athletes who will never see the inside of Cooperstown unless they buy a ticket, but who will always be indispensable to any team’s success.

As franchises have come to rely slavishly on advanced metrics, callously manipulate the major league service time of young players, and treat both budding stars and veteran journeymen as little more than expendable commodities due to the ever present availability of cheaper talent, an offseason like the one now underway is the predictable result, and that’s before the economic tsunami of the pandemic swept through the balance sheets of thirty major league franchises. Yet in time those floodwaters will recede, while baseball’s lopsided financial playing field will remain. This week confirmed that for the vast majority of owners that is just fine, since they currently occupy the high ground. But for a sport that has enjoyed the luxury of a quarter-century of labor peace, that smug attitude may well prove astonishingly shortsighted.

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