The longer this off-season goes, the hungrier I get for Spring Training. The inane asking prices that some of today’s free agents are asking for is getting out of control. I believe in the free market as much as anyone, but sometimes a little self-restraint needs to be implemented…on both sides.
The pendulum always swings both ways, and for way too many years the owners had all of the control over the lives of the players…the people the fans were paying to come watch play the greatest game on this planet. Because Curt Flood dared to go up against the establishment and make a stand against Baseball’s Reserve Clause, the pendulum stopped and ever so slightly started to swing in the other direction. But it wasn’t until Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally, with the help of MLB arbitrator Peter Seitz, got the pendulum going fully in the other direction, and ended baseball’s reserve clause and free agency ensued. And it hasn’t stopped yet, even with the collusion years under Ueberroth notwithstanding.
I do not believe free agency got out of hand until Kevin Brown, and the dawning of the $100M baseball contract. Scott Boras wanted to make an impact and he was using Kevin Brown (a very good pitcher but not a nice person) as that catalyst. Boras had the Dodgers bidding against themselves to the point that their 7 year $105M offer was $40M greater than the next bidder, the SD Padres. It was emblematic of the ineptness of the ownership/management group that Fox put together to run LA Dodger baseball operations.
The Alex Rodriguez contract was another statement contract made by Scott Boras. All he needed was one owner to buy into his propaganda, and he found one in Tom Hicks. Boras likes to bypass the GM’s and go straight to the owner. The Nationals’ Ted Lerner is Boras’ current best friend. Boston’s Dave Dombrowski loves the big transaction and is unafraid of taking on large contracts, but he does not appear to be budging on 5 years for JD Martinez. Boras is not going to accept that without getting an audience with John Henry and trying to get that 6th year. How can anyone really believe that Jake Arrieta is worth 5-6 years with a $25M AAV going into his 32 year old season? But someone will blink. There is no question that Boras represents his clients very well, but make no mistake Scott Boras needs to stay in the spotlight for himself, and he is doing his best to hold the free agency market as hostage. The owners have to look at the results of the bulk of Boras’ contracts and learn that it may be best to walk away. They have to tell Boras to talk with their baseball operations people and not try to go around them. Sure Scherzer was a great deal for the Nats, and Strasburg looks like it could be. But what about Prince Fielder, Shin Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Wei-yin Chen, Ian Kennedy, and Chris Davis. GM’s and owners have to have a publication for Boras to show him all of the bad deals he has negotiated with respect to the organizations.
But it isn’t all Scott Boras’, or the other agents’ and players’ fault. MLB has a lot to answer for. Jeffrey Loria was a bad owner, there is no doubt. I put him on par with Marge Schott, Fox, and Frank McCourt as the worst owners in MLB history. However, Rob Manfred and the owners should never have let the Jeter group purchase the Marlins, especially under the terms that Jeter’s compensation is directly tied to profit. Just like with McCourt there is not nearly enough liquidity with that group to put together a ML team on the field. I am not at all opposed to making a profit, and every team needs to work towards that goal in order to continue to exist. However one of the best sports owners in my lifetime has been Jerry Buss. He had no problem whatsoever spending money on the best players he could sign within the rules, and still won.
There are 30 teams, all with various degrees of financial stability. There is no question that the luxury tax threshold is in fact a salary cap. And in my mind, there is no question that without the luxury tax, there are owners that would not be able to help themselves and fly right by the $197M threshold. Currently there are two teams above the luxury tax threshold; Red Sox and Nationals. Neither team seems concerned about increasing their salaries even more. The Dodgers, Yankees, and Giants are restrained from going past the $197M “cap”. They are all within $17M of that mark, and one elite FA will take them over the threshold. The Dodgers can afford Darvish and so can the Yankees. But both are trying self-control. The Giants could have afforded Jay Bruce at what the Mets paid, and can afford Lorenzo Cain, but they too are showing control. Before free agency hit, the one player/team matchup that made more sense than any other was Lorenzo Cain to the Giants. But Cain will absolutely take them above the luxury tax threshold, and their management shows no inclination to do so…yet.
Is JDM really worth 5 times what Jay Bruce is? In Scott Boras’ world he is. When will the owners wake up and grow a pair and tell Boras to make a reasonable offer or go away? When will MLB insist that when Boras claims that X number of teams are offering player Y $$, that they be allowed to call the other teams and ask without being accused of collusion? I know, I know, never going to happen.
Below is a table of teams and their current (as of 1/11/18) luxury tax tracker per COTS. To me the problem is not the teams with salaries above the $160M level as much as it is the teams below $115M, and especially those below $100M.
If you drill down into the individual teams’ salaries in the luxury tax tracker, you will see a majority of teams with only few players under contract and a lot of arbitration and pre-arbitration players. This year the Phillies had 2 players under contract; Odubel Herrera and Cameron Rupp totaling $8,150,000 for the two. They have since signed Carlos Santana, Tommy Hunter, and Pat Neshek at about $100M total obligation and $35M AAV. This seems to be where the roster structure may be headed. A couple of high priced elite (or deemed to be elite) players, with the remainder of the roster made up of young controllable players.
I agree that spending 20-25% of your salary base on one player is not sustainable. Scott Boras, the other agents, and elite players are killing the golden goose. I am waiting for that agent and player who are going to say, I want to play for the Pirates or Reds or Royals (or some other mid-market team) and am willing to take a big discount so the team can get other like-minded players who recognize that $75M-$100M is more money than they could possibly need, and anything above that is strictly ego. I know I am dreaming, but for the sake of the game somebody needs to step up. It wasn’t Greinke, and it’s not going to be Harper or Machado. But I do think you saw some of that with Jansen and Turner last year accepting less to play for the Dodgers.
At the same time, when is MLB going to tell the bottom feeder teams that there is now a salary floor. Why keep giving the A’s competitive balance funds if they are not going to use it on salaries? MLB is giving each team a $50M influx from Disney, but with that infusion should come a commitment from the teams to spend it on players’ salaries. There are always going to be haves and have nots, but not to the level that exists in MLB.
If teams cannot afford to be competitive they should not be in MLB. If teams are more interested in generating more of a profit than in putting a competitive team on the field then they should not be MLB owners. If they cannot generate any profit, they need to sell to someone who can. What do fans of the A’s or Marlins, or Rays, or Brewers, have to look forward to? Being competitive (not necessarily winning) once a decade? How sad is it for the fans of the Reds and Pirates, two of the longest tenured and storied franchises in MLB history that have to struggle to put competitive teams on the field? Sure the Royals were in the WS twice in 2014 & 2015, but when was the last time before that when they were relevant? When will they be relevant again? The Cubs and Astros both did a tear down, but are now spending north of $150M and are very willing to go higher. The Phillies and White Sox have done a tear down and will again be competitive and have the ability and will to spend. The Phillies have already committed $100M this year as a team that is still not ready to be competitive, but will spend much more next year and again be a force in the NL by at least 2020.
Instead of expansion, maybe MLB should simply consider relocation only. Maybe Oakland, or Miami, or Tampa Bay do not deserve teams. Maybe other cities have the fan base that will support a team. Maybe those City Councils should only negotiate with teams who are willing to commit to a minimum salary level and minimum community involvement. Any negotiation to stadium funding should be tied to a fixed salary commitment. Why should the City partner in building a stadium if the owners do not have the ability or will to commit to a competitive salary base? If MLB continues to allow ownership groups like Jeter’s to buy teams without the ability for competitive salary levels, then maybe they should be forced to guarantee any loan or rent that the City has in place for their stadiums. Why should Yu Darvish not be “allowed” to sign with the Dodgers because it is somehow unfair to Oakland or Miami or Tampa Bay? Maybe it’s time for another Peter Seitz to become an arbiter and govern over the next CBA and make the pendulum stop right in the middle.