Tony Clark, Head MLB Players Association
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

There’s more than meets the eye when the MLB Players Association fired a shot across the bow by objecting to the Commissioner’s plans to speed up the pace of play.

If you listen carefully, you can hear the beat of the war drums when the MLB Players Association sent up a flare the other day publicly registering their objection to a rule change that would limit the number and length of visits to the mound, as well as instituting a 20-second pitch clock. All of which comes in the name of bowing to the pressure coming from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred to speed up the pace of play.

Knowing that Manfred can, and most likely will, execute these and other changes by himself, the fact that the players went ahead with their warning shot anyway signals there’s something else on their mind, and that “something else” has the potential to tear apart the game at its roots.

That rumbling is tied to the snail-like pace of free agent signings during this offseason, and more significantly the length of contracts being offered to players. It could just be that the pendulum is swinging away from favoring the players, who benefited from teams freely giving away contracts to players like Robinson Cano, who will collect $24 million a year as part of a 10-year deal he signed with the Seattle Mariners until he turns 40 in 2023.


Or maybe it’s the $240 million the Angels signed up to pay for the services of Albert Pujols, who will be issued a check by the team for $30 million when he’s 41. And don’t even mention the name Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees.

Those days are gone, and it’s likely the players get that. Even the top-tier free agents like Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, and Yu Darvish aren’t asking for 10 years, or even eight. But at the same time, super-agent Steve Boras will never let Arrieta or Martinez go for three years either. Even the six-year $162 million deal Justin Verlander finagled out the Tigers seems out of reach now, and possibly forever, especially for pitchers. Thus, the stalemate as each side waits to see who blinks first.

In baseball, the trickle-down theory of economics we all learned in high school works very efficiently, meaning those eight and 10-year deals MLB top-tier players of yesteryear won filtered on down to five-year deals for the mid-tier players. Conversely, if Arrieta, for example, settles for a five-year contract, and all of a sudden players like Todd Frazier, Lorenzo Cain, or Alex Cobb are looking at two-year deals, we can bet the MLBPA won’t stand by helplessly as it happens.

To make matters even worse, Ken Rosenthal reports in The Athletic that, “players and agents have ‘mounting’ frustration with executive director Tony Clark and his leadership of the MLBPA”. Previously, Clark has been lauded for his conciliatory “let’s talk about it” stance with the owners. But if the drums start beating, a change in leadership might be forthcoming at the highest level of the MLB Players Association.

Nevertheless, the posturing persists. Yesterday, for instance, Tom Hardricourt, writing for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, believes even the Brewers are “seeing an opportunity they couldn’t have forecast three months ago, (and) is it unreasonable to think they floated a four-year deal at $20 million or so per year (at Darvish)?”

The players can publicly argue all day that is the owners who made their own bed, and while that may be true, it is not going to offset the fact the game is getting ever younger, and that is having a distinct effect on free agents bargaining power when they are in their early thirties. The Yankees, for instance, might have seen a no-brainer in signing Frazier for a couple of years two years ago. Now, however, they have two players in Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar making the major league minimum they can plug in and still not lose much in a lineup that includes Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Judge, Greg Bird, and Gary Sanchez.

Another influencing factor is the copy-cat mentality that exists in baseball where the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs went into full-fledged rebuilding modes, suffered for it, but then emerged with World Championships as full payment for the loyalty of their fans. They drafted intelligently while avoiding the free-agent market, patiently waited, and now we see, for instance, the Astros going full bore in trading for Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander (last year) all because they (now) can.

The rebuilders of today indeed include the Marlins, Padres, White Sox, and Rays, who recently unloaded the face of their team in Evan Longoria, are running a close second to Jeter’s teardown. For these teams, who might have acted differently in a former time, why sign a mid-level free agent at $10 million so you can finish 15 games under .500 instead of 20?

Which in turn, introduces another subtle change taking place before our eyes. The clock for MLB players relevant to their age is being reset so that most players will be getting one and not two cracks at free agency and a chance to cash in.

Consider the case, for instance of Gregorius. He’s made a pittance ($9,076,400 according to Baseball Reference in his career thus far. He will be 28 when he reaches free agent status in 2020. Forget the 10-year deal given to Jeter. Eight years? No way. He’s going to get stuck in the quagmire of a five or six-year deal that is going to put him on the market again where many of today’s free agents are now, at the age of 34, competing against hungry 23 and 24-year old players making whatever the minimum is by then.

And that introduces another aspect of the current scenario the players hate, even though they signed up for it in the last round of negotiations – and that’s the luxury tax.

When you have teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs with dollars available that are yet to be printed doing back-flips to get under the $197 million payroll threshold, there’s something unique going on here. If anything, we should be saying it’s about time the Yankees as an example, realize the waste in having contributed almost a half-billion dollars ($451 million) to the coffers of their competition. But that was primarily the way of doing business for many teams for quite a while. No more.

Now, it’s the players who have made their own bed, and they are stuck with the current agreement until 2021. That doesn’t mean, however, that binding talks can’t be opened up between MLB players and owners sooner than that. Once the dust settles, and nearly all players are signed for whatever they can manage to get, we might expect to see the players pushing for a re-opening of negotiations to swing the pendulum somewhere toward the middle.

A prime target of the players is likely to be the luxury tax rules, which they see (and they are correct) as encouraging teams to spend far less on player’s salaries than they can afford. In this regard, the players will put forth a plan to require all MLB teams to have a minimum payroll of (my number) $100 million each year, preventing teams like the rebuilding Astros and other teams (notice the Cleveland Indians) from spending only the following in 2015.

MLB OD Payroll 2015
Photo courtesy of Deadspin

 

Here’s the issue spelled out directly on MLB Tonight:

While not a crash and burn situation now, the formula for peace on both sides is in jeopardy. Many of us will soon be transformed into fans welcoming the crack of the bat as teams assemble for Spring Training and the upcoming season. All well and good, but we should be mindful of the tremors beneath the surface that could be signaling the beginning of a period of discord between the players and team owners, which if unattended to now will rear their ugly head when the current player’s contract expires.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s the way it is. As fans, we don’t control these things and therefore we are inclined to turn a very cold shoulder to anything having to do with the business of baseball.

And while I am inclined to agree, when compared to my personal existence, with those who scoff at the idea of an MLB player making only a half million dollars a year, I remind myself, to go back to Didi Gregorius again, that he is his brand and he is all alone in making that brand, for his family, the best that it can be.

And in a game where no one seems to be starving, especially among the owners who continue to enjoy the benefits of a sport played on the backs of the “entertainers” they employ, it would seem the pendulum has already swung too far the other way and corrections are needed now, rather than before this goes too far.

Consider this. According to Statista.com, “In 2016, the combined revenue of all Major League Baseball teams was 9.03 billion U.S. dollars. The average revenue per MLB team stood at 300.9 million U.S. dollars.” And then, here’s the kicker from the player’s side.

Of that $300 million average per team as a player payroll of, just to pick a number, $100 million, where does the balance of $200 million wind up, even after front office personnel, farm teams, groundskeepers, trainers, gophers, etc. are accounted for?

We’ll never know that as baseball continues to be protected from federal anti-trust laws, but you can do the math.

Conciliation is always better than confrontation. And hopefully, grown men can sit down and figure this thing out before something occurs that no one wants to see happen—the first strike since 1994.

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