There are two universal truths when it comes to being a baseball fan:
- Your team is spending too much on aging players
- Your team isn’t spending enough on high end players
For every Angels fan, lamenting about how much Albert Pujols is being paid, there’s an Atlanta Braves fan, opining over the free agents that could have been, and contemplating which front office figure’s head to put on a pike outside of SunTrust Park. Free Agency has become a minefield for players over the last couple of seasons, with players catching the brunt end of under-market one year deals (like Mike Moustakas in 2018) or not signing at all (Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel this season), while owners tout their budding farm systems and throw around terms like “rebuilding” as if they were some sort of “get out of spending free” card.
It seemed like this was no more apparent, than when the Braves signed their 21 year-old, star 2nd baseman Ozzie Albies to a 5 year, $35 Million dollar contract, a sum that many found shockingly low for a player of his ability, some even calling the deal exploitative. For comparisons sake, a player of his pedigree and potential (a top prospect, almost 4 WAR player in his first full season, and an all-star selection at 21 years old). On the other hand, some praised Albies for taking the steady money, avoiding free agency, and sticking with the team that drafted him.
So why are we here? The full answer lies in the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) between MLB team owners and the players union. Anyone who is a baseball fan and born anytime before the mid 1980’s knows that these negotiations are often long, the process overly complicated, and the aftermath can be disastrous (see 1994, and the season that vanished)
The unstoppable force, and the immovable object. Add blindfolds, hand the whole thing to an impartial party, and there you have it. Salary Arbitration in baseball. It’s a stressful process, where teams are forced to break down the very players they try to build up, in order to gain control over their salary for that season. This (usually) only affects younger, talented players, the very backbone of the modern game, and it can turn ugly, with teams going to court with players over small amounts that could otherwise be negotiated, in order to save fractions of payroll. There’s no easy fix to this, because on one hand, it prevents teams from suppressing salaries to obviously deserving players, but on the other, it leaves teams with a complete unknown in their payroll, and creates situations like service manipulation in order to control costs.
This can be a stressful situation for players, and can hamper front offices from signing free agents, if they don’t know the future costs. On one hand, If the player breaks out and has a great season, it could create a tough situation for the front office, given that his salary could go up exponentially, and could cut in to overall team payroll (so it could keep a team from signing a critical free agent). On the other, if the player gets hurt, or has a rough year, he could either face a severe decline in projected salary, or even get released, should a contract not be tendered.
If you follow baseball labor negotiations (riveting, I know), you know things haven’t been going well, and the “S” (strike) word has been floating around locker rooms over the last couple of seasons. Currently, there are no active players in MLB right now who were playing during the last strike (many weren’t even born yet), and I think we can all agree the world is a little different now than when the players walked out that season and cancelled the season in August. This creates a situation where young players don’t want to be caught in the middle, and holding an empty bag if things go south, and naturally, they want insurance if that house goes up in flames.
Baseball is one of the few major sports that guarantees the players contracts, so even if there is a strike, then a player that enters that period with an official contract, gets paid. That’s a big deal for a young player, and should probably be a clue as to how the players are feeling as a whole about the labor situation.
The Modern Front Office:
There are more economists in baseball front offices than ever before. I don’t have any statistics to back this up, but I dare you to try and find any. The analytical aspect of the game has taken such precedence, that now there are entire departments devoted to squeezing as much production from players, at as little cost as possible. The last couple of years have been the peak of this new movement, and we are seeing players that were once destined for the big dollar contracts settle for not just less, but a LOT less. Players that seemed destined for starting jobs, all-star teams, even the Hall of Fame are either searching for work, or settled for less just to get it. Anyone who wants to know how stressful Free Agency is in this era of baseball, take a look at Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Dallas Keuchel, and Craig Kimbrel. Ask them how it went.
As teams devote more and more time to the draft, international scouting, and other methods of acquiring cheap talent, the market for players, especially good ones, hitting free agency is thinning very quickly, and there’s the issue of losing a high-end draft pick in the process that only further complicates the issue. Free agency is cruising towards a lose-lose situation if something isn’t done.
What this really means, is that the Albies contract should serve as the real “wake-up call” for baseball and its current free agency system. On the other hand, it shows the by product of teams focusing so much on developing their own players. It’s possible we could see a situation similar to a previous time in the games history, where team loyalty, and “being part of a winning franchise” was as much a factor as the paychecks.
It’s possible to have it both ways…. right?