AS A NEW SEASON BEGINS, PLAYERS FACE THE HARSH REALITY OF BASEBALL'S NEW WORLD ORDER
THOUGH OPENING DAY has finally graced us with its arrival, banishing to the past the silliness of yet another spring training, the 2017--18 baseball offseason will not recede easily into memory. The past winter showcased the calamities facing Major League Baseball and signaled to labor and management how much work it will take to safeguard the game's future.
For two years now, baseball has closed its season with an extraordinary World Series then opened its offseason by awarding a trophy to executives who oversaw a remorseless tanking effort. Tanking limits competitiveness within the season and outside of it: the A's, Tigers, Reds, Rays, Pirates and Braves more or less sat out free agency, and the Marlins did all of them one better. The usually free-spending Yankees and Dodgers also skipped free agency to avoid paying the luxury tax.
Softer demand in the free agent market makes life harder for all players. Unlike the other American professional leagues, baseball has no salary cap or floor, which means players are not guaranteed any particular share of league revenue. To achieve financial equilibrium, they rely on free agency. The union signs off on three minimum-salary years and three arbitration years for every player; in exchange, when all that's through, a player hits an open market with essentially limitless earning power. Teams underpay for the front ends of careers and overpay for the back ends.
Well, they used to, anyway. As with so many free agents themselves, MLB's compensation model is past its prime. Just ask Lance Lynn, Mike Moustakas or Todd Frazier how their plans to cash in on free agency turned out. Each one—and they've all been All-Stars—will make less in 2018 than he did in 2017. Team spending on player salaries will decrease for the first time since 2004, according to ESPN.
In a public statement in February, Frazier's agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, went so far as to accuse owners of collusion and to saber-rattle about a strike. Players grumbled about all the teams' opting out of contention. But just as relevant as the owners' tightfistedness is the union's shortsightedness. Instead of responding to teams' growing favor for young players by insisting on a new approach to service time, the union, led by Tony Clark, spent the labor negotiations in 2016 agitating for perks, such as clubhouse chefs.
Sure, the old model continues to work well for some players. It took a while for Eric Hosmer to sign a contract that gloriously overpaid him, but in due course he did. It will likely work, also, for stars Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and (if he opts out) Clayton Kershaw in this coming offseason. But these are rare examples. What about 2015 AL MVP Josh Donaldson? Teams may be scared away by his diminishing range and age (32). What about Charlie Blackmon, in a similar situation and only six months Donaldson's junior?
The shortcomings of MLB's approach to service time and compensation also compel teams to keep players in Triple A too long and players to accept contracts that could dramatically undervalue their skills. Before ever playing a big league game, Phillies prospect Scott Kingery agreed to a six-year, $24 million deal with three club-option years. Kingery's deal leaves him set for life if he gets hurt or flames out, but it positions the Phillies for a bargain if he's as good as advertised.
If there's one lesson, it's that players and teams alike desire a system that works better. In this negotiation, both sides could actually meet in the middle: perhaps with a service time clock that starts when a player is in the minors but runs to a seventh year before free agency; or an additional year of arbitration eligibility but also a league-wide salary floor; or simply with firmer instructions from the league that tanking, which harms the game's long-term health in middling markets, is verboten. Any approach would require compromise. Without corrective action the issues raised this past offseason will make every sunny spring day just a little cloudier.
A LIFE REMEMBERED
SIGN OF THE APOCALYPSE
RICK PITINO WILL NOT ATTEND THE KENTUCKY OAKS AT CHURCHILL DOWNS—DESPITE HAVING A HORSE IN THE RACE NAMED COACH ROCKS—BECAUSE HE VOWED HE WOULDN'T SET FOOT IN THE STATE AFTER BEING FIRED BY LOUISVILLE.
THEY SAID IT
"IT'S NOT A BIG DEAL. IT'S JUST DEAD.
TORONTO MANAGER JOHN GIBBONS,on third baseman Josh Donaldson's right arm. After struggling to throw to first base on Opening Day, Donaldson was relegated to DH duties, citing a "dead arm."