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In A Sluggish Free-Agent Market, Upset MLB Players Must Share the Blame

For Major League Baseball, this is slowest offseason for player signings since, well, ever.

Spring-training camps will be open soon, and many of the top free agent talents remain without a contract.

Yu Darvish … J.D.Martinez … Eric Hosmer … Jake Arrieta … Mike Moustakas … Lance Lynn … Alex Cobb … Greg Holland … Jonathan Lucroy.

What’s going on here?

On the surface the situation seems complicated, mysterious, sinister.

MLB franchises are in great shape financially. The revenue levels have risen to record levels. The team owners can afford anything. They can have the loot to jack up the payroll.

The No. 1 hot-take theory is collusion.

The scoundrel owners have done it before — conspiring to tamp down player salaries — and they’re doing it again. They’ll get caught. 

We’ll see.

Or maybe the slow market is the result of obvious factors.

The players are mad. There’s been talk of a spring-training boycott, or at least a delay in reporting to camp. (The MLB Players association denied that.)  The player agents are braying. They’re mad because baseball GMs are not rushing to the table with overwhelming deals for agents’ clients.

Actually, I think is all very simple:

1. The players need to take a hard look at their union leadership, because the MLB Players Association didn’t cut a favorable — or even fair — deal with the owners in the 2016 labor agreement. The union signed off on a luxury-tax threshold that became a de facto salary cap. Teams don’t want to cross that threshold ($197 million payroll in 2018) and enter a special spot in hell where they’re paying enormous penalties. Example: for the fifth straight year (through 2017) the LA Dodgers paid a hefty tax for going over the limit. Their 2017 penalty was a cool $36.2 million. Since 2013, the Dodgers have paid more than $150 million in penalties.

That’s why owners and GMs are keeping some distance from that line. Or they are saving their payroll space for next year’s FA market that will include Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. And under the new CBA, teams that go over the $197 million for this season will be have draft picks taken away.  A franchise that has a payroll of $150 million or more for 2018 will be careful; we’re talking about a dozen or so teams. Obviously, these clubs aren’t real motivated to dish massive contracts.

2.  There’s no payroll floor, either. Not only did the MLB Players Association agree to an unofficial but salary cap,  but the union made it worse by failing to negotiate a payroll floor into the new CBA. A payroll floor would force teams to maintain a minimum payroll level.  As of now, 11 MLB teams have a projected 2018 payroll of less than $100 million …. nine are under $84 million …. six are less than $75 million. Teams that are receiving generous revenue-sharing handouts from wealthier franchises but have no interest in actually competing should pay a price for it. They should be hit with penalties for pocketing money … refusing to fund a respectable payroll  that would help to put a competitive team on the field.

3. While the union successfully resisted the owners’ desire for an international player draft, it wasn’t much of a victory. Why? Because MLB has imposed limits on international amateurs. And there’s a hard cap on those limits. So there you go … another salary cap.

4. Tanking is out of control.  The Cubs did it, and won a World Series. The Astros did it, and won a World Series. And now other teams are joining in … slashing their payrolls, disengaging from competition, and supposedly trading in several consecutive losing seasons for a brighter future.  But how many owners are tanking now? Or how many teams  are simply not competing? If that number reaches 10, and we’re close, then one-third of the industry is declining to pursue a winning season, or a playoff spot.  This isn’t healthy for baseball … especially if some teams are using this approach to cover for their cheapness and refusal to spend money on players — while at the same time swimming in a generous revenue-sharing pool.  And this also works against veteran players who finally have reached their first opportunity to cash in on free agency.

Let’s review: if a bunch of teams aren’t spending to avoid entering luxury-tax hell, and a bunch of teams aren’t spending much because they’re tanking  … then how many teams are really left to participate in the free-agent market? Not many.

5. Baseball executives are smarter now. The Ivy Leaguers — The Sons of Theo — aren’t much interested in emulating the cigar-chomping, big-shooter, big-talker GM types of yesteryear who squandered piles of money. The smart boys see no reason to hand over a significant percentage of their team payroll to veterans who don’t provide more value than younger, cheaper talent.

What’s the point of paying Eric Hosmer more than  $100 million to play first base when you can have someone handle the position and do ot nearly as well …  but at a fraction of the cost of investing in Hosmer? Just because owners are prospering from record revenue streams, does this mean management is obligated to spend wildly  like idiots when there are more payroll-efficient options to procure players of equal or superior value?

What purpose is served by paying aging players for what they’ve done in the past — and stupidly committing your franchise to enriching a fading star as he settles into his decline years?

Here’s Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins: “When you’re talking about free agency, you’re talking about aging players. And the trend of overpaying a player’s aging curves has come to an end across baseball.”

Former Cardinal Brandon Moss, now with Oakland, candidly addressed this during a recent interview on MLB Network. I don’t think the agents or fellow players will like what Moss had to say, but I respect him for his honesty.

“Everything that happens in the game of baseball, as far as how things are done financially, is bargained into a collective bargaining agreement. The way free agency runs, the way draft money is allotted, the way international signing bonus is allotted. Everything is bargained.

“We have the right to bargain and set our price, just like the owners have the right to meet that price. But what we’ve done is we have incentivized owners, we have incentivized teams to say ‘We don’t want to meet that price. It costs us too much to meet that price. It costs us draft picks. It costs us international signing money. We’re going to have to pay a tax if we go over a certain threshold’ …  that we (the players) set ourselves. And the only reason those things are there is because we bargained them in.

“I feel like, as players, we have to watch out for our own interest. If you run too good of a deal out there in a bargaining agreement, then of course the owners are going to jump on it. You have to be willing to dig your heels in a little bit — fight for the things the guys in the past have fought for. … I just hate to see players like me taking advantage of a system that was set up for me, by other players, and not passing it along to the next generation of players. Everybody wants to look up and scream collusion … sooner or later, you have to take responsibility for a system you created for yourself. It’s our fault.”

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Miklasz – Should the Cardinals Tank? If You Hate Their Long-Term Success, Good Idea!