There are several valuable major league players still looking for work and we are in the first week of February. This is something that has some major league officials concerned. Could there be changes soon in the baseball system?
For the second year in a row, the off-season has lurched along with very few trades or team acquisitions.
Top players Manny Machado, Bryce Harper, Craig Kimbrel, and Dallas Keuchel have yet to find a new gig for this season, despite the fact that spring training looms large. Ironically, the Padres may again be involved in breaking up the logjam.
Last year, in another historically frigid “hot stove” league, San Diego signed first baseman Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million contract. This year, general manager A.J. Preller has reportedly pursued both Harper and Machado. Rumor has it that he has also discussed a trade for catcher J.T. Realmuto with the Miami Marlins.
In the meantime, a few players have agreed to deals they might not have considered two or three years ago to avoid facing the hassles and uncertainties of the current free-agent zeitgeist. Diamondback A.J. Pollock signed a four-year contract with the Dodgers, but the deal gives Los Angeles a lot of wiggle room by offering between $45 million to $60 million for three to five seasons. Reading the tea leaves, players like Dodgers’ left-hander Clayton Kershaw opted to add a year at the end of his existing contract rather than try to test the waters of free agency, which used to be considered a kind of wonderland for top players.
David Freese, who performed well for the Dodgers in the World Series, settled for a $5 million contract rather than the original $6 million he’d accepted. Freese also must be well aware of the data driving teams toward younger players. In general, aging curves indicate that players peak between the ages of 26 and 29. At 35, Freese finds himself on the downside. Still, he’s not happy with the current situation.
“I don’t like it,” Freese recently told Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times: “I don’t think it needs to be like that. We understand how much money is out there, and the question is where is the fan’s money going.”
Freese brings up an excellent and timely question for Padres’ fans, especially in light of the team’s recent decision to share partial financial information with the San Diego Union-Tribune’s Kevin Acee. The Ron Fowler/Peter Seidler ownership group willingly took on debt and presumably signed off on the expensive and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to “go for it” in 2015. Since then, the team has added the two most expensive contracts in their history (Wil Myers, Eric Hosmer), but beyond that, has been pinching those pennies.
The sport itself appears to be awash in cash as it exceeded $10 billion in revenue for the first time in 2017. The Yankees, of course, top the list with a value of $4 billion, according to Forbes, with the Dodgers ranked second at $3 million. In 17thplace, the Padres are worth $1.27 billion.
Until recently, free agency had been a dream come true, for the better players especially, a reward for the indignities of the minor leagues. Let’s take a closer look at the downright unfairness to those guys riding the busses, especially in light of what we now know about team wealth. In an example of that unfairness in revenue distribution, an omnibus spending bill for the United States actually contained a provision (ironically called “Save America’s Pastime Act”) denying minor league players the protection of minimum wage status.
The base salary for minor leaguers is $1,100 a month, but only during the actual season. Thanks to their penurious paychecks, the players pile into small apartments together and don’t have the money for decent diets. Players with families have an even rougher time.
Once the lucky few actually reach the big leagues, a minimum salary of $545,000 kicks in. Since the late 1980s, players have agreed to three years at that set salary and three more of arbitration before free agency. That seemed like a fine idea, especially when players like Jason Heyward received eight-year salaries worth $184 million. But the market has obviously changed dramatically, in part because of those salaries. No team wants to be stuck paying a 39-year-old Albert Pujols $28 million.
An obvious solution would be to change the current salary structure so that arbitration kicks in earlier. Obviously, that would be an advantage for the players, but it would also serve the owners well. Teams would be paying players during their years of peak performance rather than at the time the aging curve starts down the wrong side.
Of course, most fans feel little sympathy for players taking home millions of dollars at a time that the average household measures its income in thousands ($61,372). But most will understand the issue of fairness and the fact that a sport awash in wealth does not share it more equitably with the players without whom the sport would obviously not exist.
And for the health of the sport, it would be in the best interest of the owners of all 30 teams to avoid another offseason like this and last year’s. Fans should be talking about spring training trips and potential rosters, not wondering whatever happened to the good old days of rampant rumors, free agent signings, and trades.