It’s all too easy to forget that we’re halfway through the MLB offseason, what with the daily distractions of regular season NBA and NHL games, and the sports news cycle focused on the NFL postseason.
Here we are, though, midway through January, a month away from pitchers and catchers reporting and the biggest free agents on the market, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, remain unsigned.
There’s been offseason action, to be fair. The Nationals shelled out for the best pitcher on the market in Patrick Corbin. There’ve been signings, and some players have even surpassed expectations (see: the Rangers’ signing of Lance Lynn for three years at $10 million a year). In general, though, it’s been another lackluster offseason from the players’ perspective, with the majority of free agents remaining unsigned and those who have generally signing for less than anticipated.
The roster moves of the last week haven’t exactly made the picture any rosier. The Mets signed Jed Lowrie, who hit .267/.353/.448 last season and put up 4.8 bWAR/4.9 fWAR, to a two-year, $20 million deal. The Yankees decided that Machado was too rich for their blood and signed DJ LeMahieu and his career 90 wRC+ to a two-year, $24 million deal (one of those expectation-surpassing signings, surprisingly enough). The 2018 free agent class was supposed to be the reason that teams weren’t spending last year, but now the rich teams are crying cheap.
Perhaps the biggest signifier of the times was the Brewers’ pickup of Yasmani Grandal on a one-year, $18.5 million deal. That would be a 29-year old, switch-hitting catcher who’s hit .240/.341/.441 for a 117 wRC+ since getting called up in 2012, and is coming off his best season (.241/.349/.466, 125 wRC+, 3.3 bWAR/3.6 fWAR). Despite his high profile (and small sample size) struggles during the postseason, it’s still more than a little shocking to see a catcher who can hit as well as Grandal has for as long as he has sign a one-year deal for barely more than the qualifying offer he declined. Los Angeles decided that they would rather trade a couple of fringe prospects for Russell Martin (1.3 bWAR/0.6 fWAR in 2018) than better the Brewers’ offer.
Baseball has ostensibly functioned pretty damn well since the 1994-1995 strike, and while there have been some minor scares (like the last CBA negotiations, which came down to the wire), baseball has kept on trucking. Since those dire days, MLB has been the only of America’s big four sports to avoid a lockout (even if the NFL’s 2011 lockout didn’t actually cost them any games). Part of the reason for that is just how embarrassing the strike was, and part of it is simply that things ostensibly worked the way they were supposed to. That might be coming to an end, though.
The history of labor relations in Major League Baseball is a long and complicated one, deserving of books rather than blogs. But to summarize very succinctly where we’re at: Since the reserve clause was clause was dismantled in 1975 and free agency became the law of the land, baseball’s continued peace between labor and management has rested on the fairly simple idea that you work your ass off for pennies on the dollar and then you get a shot at a payday, however long that shot might be. Minor league baseball players accept the humiliations of minor league play and grind, grind, grind for their chance in the big leagues. Then, after a six-year evaluation period, get paid what the market deems acceptable.
But things aren’t working out quite right. The MLBPA reported that the average salary dropped last year for the first time since 2004, and only the fourth time ever since they started tracking those numbers. Given that the MLB posted record revenues in 2018, you could understand why players are getting a bit upset.
To be fair, a large part of this is the MLBPA’s fault. In the last rounds of CBA negotiations, nearly all of the riches went in the direction of the owners, with caps on signing bonuses and stricter luxury tax penalties reducing team spending. The luxury tax issue has resulted in a de facto salary cap for free-spending teams like the Dodgers and Yankees. The postseason might be a crapshoot, but it’s worth noting that the team with the highest payroll in baseball won the damn thing last year.
The template followed by the Cubs and the Astros that resulted in championships is certainly attractive. Lose, lose, lose; collect top prospects. But the more teams that are taking that approach, the less likely it is to work. Top-overall prospects are a limited resource, and prospect development is always going to be a messy business. And now even contending teams seem to be hesitant to spend, filling roster holes via trades rather than free agent signings. There’s certainly sense to it, and, as someone who literally grades these deals, I’m as guilty as anyone else for giving credit for making good business decisions. I’ll give the Brewers’ front office top marks for the Grandal signing, and every Milwaukee fan should be happy about it.
But there’s a storm brewing, if even the best players available aren’t getting what they’ve worked long and hard for. There’s no shortage of solutions, either. Shorten the number of years of team control so that players get paid while they’re still in their primes. Start arbitration sooner. Have restricted free agency. Set salary floors. Declare every player a free agent once they turn 27 or 28.
Maybe pay minor league players a living wage. Minor league teams have separate owners (millionaires, rather than billionaires) and aren’t unionized. The MLBPA has shown time and time again that MiLB players aren’t a priority. The situation is more of a skills-based lottery, one with a super-high attrition rate due to work-based injuries. But now the lottery winnings are being cut into, to boot.
None of these solutions are simple, but, one way or another, teams are going to have start paying players more when they’re younger or they’re going to have to give up the pretense that the old system works. The current system is broken and, while there are certainly some obvious fixes available, the MLBPA is going to have to make some tough decisions over the next few years. Any proposed solution are going to require the players’ union to take a stand, and for players to stand together. Perhaps even remember what it was like to be in the minors and living six to a room and subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
Baseball is as rich as it’s ever been and there’s plenty of money to go around. It’s mid-January and we’re still sitting around waiting for our teams to spend the money we spent on cable packages, MLB subscriptions, tickets, hats and jerseys. Last offseason, it was Shohei Ohtani and Giancarlo Stanton causing the holdup. This offseason, it’s Harper and Machado. It’s pretty safe to say there’ll be a reason next offseason, too, so maybe it’s time for some changes before things get even worse.