MLB Salary Crisis

Good day. I come to you under the direst of circumstances to talk about what is plaguing Major League Baseball today: Player salaries. There it’s out. Now we can stop ignoring the butterfly in the room…or was it an elephant? Who knows.

Since the 2017 World Series ended and free agency opened up, there have been more than a few player movement deals but not nearly as many as in previous years. For whatever reasons, during this off season the general managers have drawn their line in the sand and shown actual restraint. It has been spooky. Normally by this time in spring training, fans have a plethora of signings to mull over and jabber about for the good and the bad. ‘Franchise X grossly overpaid for this player to fill a need but so did about a dozen others.’

So what made this off season different? As I am not privy to the closed-door penthouse conversations and strategy sessions, I can only speculate about what was said and discussed by the baseball powers that be. To be fair there were a few head-scratcher contracts (Hosmer, Darvish, Martinez and Upton) but not nearly as many as in recent years. Perhaps general managers around baseball finally got a clue that dishing out huge disproportional contracts for good (not great) talent based on short-term needs is not worth the return on those over-payments? Nah I doubt it. They are probably just riding out this season until they can get a crack at a couple of franchise type players in Manny Machado or Bryce Harper.

Obviously fanbases across the country are confused by the sudden change in tactics by their beloved franchises;  almost as much as the free agent players themselves are confounded. Such actions could lead to a revolt by the players! Concerned fans are calling for set spending measures (salary cap and salary floor)! We could be on the verge of anarchy! Whoa let’s pump the brakes here a second.

I strongly dislike the idea of putting false parameters in place just to do so. If you do that then everything gets jacked up and you have a financial situation like they have in the NBA where you have a backup-backup guard who plays 7 minutes per game but draws in a $10 million annual salary. Crazy stupid stuff that leads to all sorts of trade deadline deals where one NBA team trades five players for one player (only to release three of five) to make the money work in the trade. Whatever happened to getting paid for your accomplishments? I know I’m looking at this from the fans perspective and with a very simplified, direct approach that many baseball execs would say is unrealistic. But it seems like here recently all baseball had been doing was rewarding players for what they had done prior to their new contract; even if it was for a new team that had nothing to do with the previous accomplishments! Obviously baseball franchises are businesses and they want to latch onto or keep promotable (profitable) commodities. But if you look back on a good portion of the largest contracts over the last 30 years or so, those contracts have not been mutually beneficially. For the duration of those huge deals, the player is set regardless of how they perform (see Mike Hampton) but oftentimes the franchise who coughed up the finances is reaching for the Excedrin and Pepto waiting for the pain to stop.

Over the years the players’ side and the owners’ side have poured quite a bit of time, energy and attorneys’ fees into their framework agreements. But maybe they need to tweak the core a bit. Let me propose something if I may. MLB players are basically controlled on service time by each team in the league. For the scope of this argument I only want to focus on salaries and not the pensions et al. Franchises hold the (playing, marketing, etc.) rights to their players for a certain period of time, thus the hold backs on upcoming prospects to limit their service time to lengthen the franchise’s (cost) control on players. Regardless of how good a player is in those first few years upon entering the league, the controlling franchise can pay the player at the league minimum salary amount. Fair or not, this was agreed to by the players association along with the owners. After those first few years, players can become arbitration eligible and at least begin to negotiate for their accomplishments to equate to their compensation. Once all of the arbitration years are exhausted, a player can become a free agent and negotiate with any franchise he wishes. Based on his body of work or projected potential, he can be compensated very well with no promise of guaranteed results for a new team (or resign with his former team). This type of contract lays all the risk at the feet of the new or resigning franchise in hopes that the player continues to perform at or near their historical pace or pre-injury levels (if applicable).

What if the MLB player’s association and the league itself considered more universal incentives? This would be very beneficial for younger ‘controllable’ players. There are many free agent contracts that have bonus clauses based on finishing top ten in MVP voting, Cy Young voting, based on a set number of plate appearances or an number of other accomplishment-based measurements. This small tweak would allow un-established talents to augment their baseline pay even if they are being salary controlled by the franchise. With revenue sharing in place and large incomes derived from TV contracts and merchandising, team should easily be able to afford these universal clauses. I’m not saying the league do away with ‘open’ free agent contracts because they could still have three to five ‘franchise player’ contract slots open that have open ended values to allow attraction of the Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw-type talents. In addition to the ‘franchise contracts’ and the controllable player’s incentives, there could be service time slotted free agent contracts for a base range among players who have played so many years (like the NBA veteran minimum) along with the incentives.

Obviously I have proposed something with very broad strokes but maybe it is something to be considered. From the outside looking in, it seems like many MLB franchises are making more and more money while divesting less and less of it to the talent on the field (not you Dodgers and Yankees). To me it seems like there is a disconnect or a problem brewing; it has long been a philosophy of mine not to rant and rave about a problem unless you are prepared to offer some sort of solution. Admittedly I do not have a background in law or any other types of legalese and provisos but I did try to formulate a potential alternative to the existing structure that could ease the tensions from both sides. Right now it seems like the Major League franchises are holding all the cards while the talent (players) are very much at the mercy of the clubs willingness to spend.

Hopefully something in the above paragraphs makes some semblance of sense or you can at least see the reasoning even if you fault the viability of such suggestions. As I type these words, the baseball season creeps closer and I am excited for my Indians to make one last legit run at a World Series title before Cinderella’s clock strikes midnight and they become the Florida Marlins or the Oakland A’s or a pumpkin. To all of my baseball people, let’s play ball and hopefully 2018 is THE year!



P.S. I think there also should be a max contract length of three years with two mutual options instituted. This would allow teams to get out from under under-performing contracts quicker. For top-tier talents, it would give them the chance to ‘cash in’ more often in free agency or move to a more competitive franchise if so desired. Just a thought.

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