Scott Stinson: As potential lockout looms, spend-happy MLB owners will have hard time pleading poverty

Asia's Tech News Daily

Major League Baseball is doing a very poor job of depicting itself to be in financial crisis.

Scott Stinson: As potential lockout looms, spend-happy MLB owners will have hard time pleading poverty
© Todd Kirkland/Getty Images Bo Bichette will potentially have had four All-Star calibre seasons for the Toronto Blue Jays, and will have made the major-league minimum in all of them, before he is even eligible for salary arbitration that would finally begin to reflect his production.

The New York Mets just agreed to pay Max Scherzer more than US$40-million a year for the seasons in which he will be 38, 39, and 40.

The Texas Rangers have committed US$500-million in contracts to two free agents. Two!

The Tampa Bay Rays, well-established misers, signed Wander Franco to a US$182-million extension, even as they try to convince two different cities to pay for new stadiums.

Oh, and the Boston Red Sox bought the Pittsburgh Penguins. Depending how much of a controlling interest that Fenway Sports Group took in Sidney Crosby and Friends, that cost US$500-million and possibly much more than that.

And on Wednesday night, it’s expected that baseball’s owners will lock out the players upon the expiration of their collective bargaining agreement, kicking off the first work stoppage in the sport in a quarter century. Thus will begin a campaign of undetermined length in which the players and their union will insist that there needs to be fundamental change to baseball’s compensation structure, and the league will respond that its owners couldn’t possibly be expected to spend one extra dollar. If anything, commissioner Rob Manfred will say, the owners can’t even afford the current market rates. It will be a tough message to sell, literal hours after the spending frenzy of the past few days. And yet, try to sell it they will.

Major League Baseball is unique among the four big North American pro sports in that the money pie is not clearly divided between owners and players. The NHL, NFL and NBA collective agreements are quite different from one another, but at the root they agree to a salary target that is based on a proportion of league revenues. While MLB has a luxury tax that has in practice been a pseudo-cap, nothing is stopping any team from suddenly throwing around money like they are on a heater at the craps table. Mega contracts like those given to Bryce Harper (US$330-million) and Manny Machado (US$300-million) in recent years stand out even more when compared to the standards of the NFL, which is vastly more popular than baseball but which guarantees far less money to its superstars. The Toronto Blue Jays have committed more money to George Springer ($150-million) than the Kansas City Chiefs have guaranteed to Patrick Mahomes ($140-million and change).

But baseball’s big contracts obscure a years-long trend in which overall player salaries have declined, which has been the case in every season since 2017. That drop is the result of a few industry-wide factors. Front offices have figured out the value in having young, cheap players do the jobs that used to go to pricey veterans. More importantly, while a small number of teams will reliably spend big year after year to remain in playoff contention, everyone else operates in a cycle in which they can spend several years acquiring prospects, which makes them eventually mildly competitive, and only then will they invest in a brief window of contention. In any given season, this can mean a third of MLB teams are not particularly interested in winning, if not actively trying to avoid it.

The players, understandably, are displeased with this development, especially when teams control their services for six years once they reach the majors, and sometimes seven seasons if they are kept in the minors for just long enough to make sure that first year doesn’t count. Consider that someone like Bo Bichette will potentially have had four All-Star calibre seasons for the Blue Jays, and will have made the major-league minimum in all of them, before he is even eligible for salary arbitration that would finally begin to reflect his production. The sports-payroll website Spotrac estimates Bichette’s market value for 2022 at US$17.7-million, relative to his peers. The Jays will pay him less than $600,000.

Allowing players to reach arbitration sooner, or even some type of restricted free agency, would make it less attractive to stockpile youth, and would potentially restore some of the value of middle-tier veterans, who suddenly wouldn’t look so bad next to an untested minor leaguer if the young guy was now making real money.

Players who are on the union executive — one of whom, notably, is Scherzer — have said getting young guys paid is one of the key goals of the CBA negotiation. But wherever the money ultimately goes, what the players want most is simply for more of it to be available to them. The New York Mets were sold for more than US$2.4-billion. The Miami Marlins were sold for US$1.2-billion, almost 10 times the amount that former owner Jeffrey Loria paid for the franchise 15 years earlier. What the players see are teams that are owned by billionaires, or complicated billion-dollar conglomerates, which have figured out how to capitalize on a system that provides them massively discounted labour for years.

They insist that they will see that changed in the next agreement. The owners will respond that there just isn’t enough money left in the cupboard. Even if the past 72 hours proves very much otherwise.

• Email: | Twitter: scott_stinson

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