For far too long, Major League Baseball has been getting in its own way. And we’re not talking about the play on the field.
Slow-paced games, too many walks and strikeouts, a dearth of competent pitchers – those are worries for another day. MLB and the MLB Players’ Association have commenced talks – mostly just talking – on a new collective bargaining agreement, the most momentous round of negotiations in two decades.
The fight will be familiar: Owners will aim to suppress salaries as much as possible, exert maximum control over players and nudge the football a little further down the field after quietly making gains in the last two CBAs. Players, distrustful and bent on regaining lost ground, will explore every avenue to reclaim a larger share of booming revenues.
And naturally, fans will want to hear nothing of it.
They just want their baseball, and come December, they’ll want “hot stove action” filling their timelines – trades and free agency and personnel intrigue and dreaming on a better 2022 for their ballclub.
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Blame “Moneyball” if you must, but trades and tenders the rumors surrounding it all have in many ways superseded balls and strikes when it comes to fan engagement.
Which is why MLB’s efforts to suppress such movement is so curious.
Every winter, its in-house network is dispatched to the winter meetings, eager to hype every whisper and transaction. Increasingly, it amounts to four days of filling dead air, as franchises wait for the spring thaw to save relative pennies and freeze players out as long as possible.
And they’re allegedly in the entertainment business?
No, a freer market makes for a better market, which the 30 billionaires who run the game should know. Alas, too often they are capitalists in the streets and socialists on the (balance) sheets, saving relative pennies now while slowly draining interest in the product.
We’re here to fix that. With CBA talks ready to pick up steam, here’s three significant adjustments we’d like to see in the upcoming pact between players and owners:
Free agency after five years
Among the many relatively radical hopes and dreams of the MLBPA this time around is, somehow, ending the act of service-time suppression, in which a burgeoning star is held down in the minor leagues just long enough to delay his free agency another year.
The Cubs and Astros turned this into an art form, milking seven years, instead of six, out of Kris Bryant and George Springer, respectively, pushing those young stars’ free agency into their 30s. Bryant filed a grievance against the Cubs, which was denied. After all, it’s not easy to definitively prove a team is lying when it maintains a young star “needs to work on his defense just a little bit more in the minors,” or whatever.
So, how best to ensure players are free after six years of service? Grant free agency after five years.
A year of service time consists of 172 days, and after this season, Bryant will hit the market at 6 years, 171 days. Under our system, he’d already be free and the Cubs would have harvested just as much out of him: Six seasons, a Rookie of the Year and MVP, a World Series title.
Given that the Bryants and Springers and Vlad Guerrero Jrs. are the exception and not the rule, this may seem like a solution looking for a problem. Yet getting players to free agency earlier would create far more of a marketing bonanza and put MLB more in line with the NBA and NFL – two leagues it’s thirsty to emulate.
In the NBA, first-round draft picks are restricted free agents after four years and unrestricted – if so inclined – after five. NFL players with sufficient “games accrued” are restricted free agents after three seasons (subject to the “franchise tag” and draft-pick compensation) and unrestricted after four.
In this light, five years to free agency for a ballplayer doesn’t seem so extreme – particularly given the fervent interest NBA free agency generates each summer. Sure, we may yearn for a time when Cal Ripken Jr. or Tony Gwynn played forever with their teams, but those days don’t necessarily have to end.
In fact, the San Diego Padres did not hesitate to place Fernando Tatis Jr. on their 2019 opening-day roster, much to the surprise of grizzled service-time suppressors. After all, they just handed him a clear path to free agency a year sooner than necessary. Fools!
And what did Tatis do? Signed a 14-year, $340 million extension that will keep him in San Diego almost as long as Mr. Padre himself.
Earlier free agency would also expedite resolution to festering situations. With media and fans even more savvy to contractual machinations, the “will he or won’t he?” game becomes onerous for player, fan and organization. In Washington, the final two years of Bryce Harper’s tenure was essentially a countdown to free agency, and now it’s the great Juan Soto on the clock.
Soto just saw all his pals from the 2019 World Series champions traded off, and the Nationals enter a re-tooling mode. Beyond learning the names of the new kids, there’s just one story in D.C. for the next three years: Soto’s future.
He will still have three years to free agency after this one, giving the Nationals another year or so to ponder how much of the Lincoln Memorial they’ll offer him to stay. Barring an unlikely instant rebuild, that’s a long time for Soto to reside in baseball purgatory. Yet if he were free after five years, the timetable for the Nationals to offer him a lifetime deal would move up. Closure would come sooner.
Oh, earlier free agency would cost owners a few bucks, but with an increasingly greater percentage of production coming from young, minimum-wage type players, they’d still reap plenty of benefits from fixed labor costs for the majority of its workforce.
Kill draft-pick compensation
We’ve grown so accustomed to teams obsessing over losing draft picks – and thus proceeding ultra-carefully in the free-agent market – that we so easily overlook the roots of this entire system.
Free agency was viewed as such an evil – worth fighting all the way to the Supreme Court until an arbitrator ruled in favor of players – that the concept of losing total control over a player was considered calamitous. So, beginning with the 1976 CBA, the loss of a free agent meant gaining a draft pick from the signing team.
Nearly a half-century later, we know better: Losing a player to free agency is not the end of the world.
And attaching draft-pick compensation to a departing free agent begs the question: How long do you expect to exert control over a player?
Once incoming players are drafted and signed, the club controls their minor league rights for up to seven years, and then their major league rights until they accrue six years of service time.
Is 13 years not sufficient for clubs to harvest the value out of a player?
Granted, most players who take more than six years to crack a 40-man roster don’t eventually become high-end free agents. Yet many that do have already put in a decade of service to their club. Is it fair to attach a value-suppressing mechanism to their backs once they are free?
Consider Lance Lynn. He was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008 and by 2011 was on the big league roster and a key contributor to a World Series champion. He was an All-Star and 18-game winner a year later, endured Tommy John surgery in 2016 and came back to toss 186 more innings, winning 72 games over seven years.
Did he not give enough of himself to the organization?
Apparently not. The Cardinals extended him a qualifying offer, and in the cold and potentially collusive free agent environment of 2017-18, the specter of a lost draft pick clung to Lynn like a scarlet letter. He did not receive an official contract offer until the Twins signed him to a one-year, $12 million deal on March 12.
Predictably, the late start to spring screwed up his season; his ERA was 5.10 when the Twins traded him to the Yankees in July.
“I don’t recommend starting late, missing spring training and getting out of the gate slow. I never got my legs under me," Lynn recently told USA TODAY Sports.
Lynn steadied himself with the Yankees, signed a three-year, $30 million deal with Texas, regained All-Star form after a trade to the White Sox and signed a two-year, $38 million extension with them.
Now, wouldn’t it have been better for the player, for his teams and yes, for the fans had Lynn simply signed a six-year, $80 million deal four years ago, which is what he’ll make in that span?
You might think killing draft-pick compensation will gravely injure lower-revenue teams who need every pick to overcome the loss of free agents they can’t afford to retain.
Since the 2012-2013 off-season, when the CBA ushered in this era of clubs making qualifying offers to free agents to tie them to draft-choice compensation, 57 draft picks have been awarded to teams losing free agents.
And which teams were awarded the most picks?
The Yankees and Cardinals, with six each.
Two teams received no compensation picks and instead were docked three draft choices: Those wild-spending Twins and Brewers.
Yep, two Upper Midwest teams lauded for their austerity and “building up the right way” actually were hurt the most by this system, penalized for signing the likes of Lorenzo Cain, Yasmani Grandal and Josh Donaldson and earning a combined six playoff appearances over the past four seasons.
There are already enough disincentives to win. Draft-pick compensation helps nobody, turns free-agency into a stultifying death march and puts players in compromised positions. Goodbye.
Kill the luxury tax
When you enjoy the fruits of anti-trust exemption and lord over a popular sport that produces more than $10 billion in annual revenue, you essentially get to choose your own headlines.
And if you’re running baseball, which headline would you choose?
Yankees win World Series
Yankees narrowly avoid luxury tax
Tough call, huh?
Yet baseball has chosen pencil-pushing over pennant winning, the aforementioned fan obsession with transactions providing cover for payroll suppression.
Did you know that the Yankees’ major league payroll of roughly $204 million (or $209 million for luxury-tax purposes) is less than their 2005 payroll of $208 million?
Did you know that MLB revenues have risen from around $5 billion in 2005 to nearly $11 billion in 2019? Or that the Yankees’ franchise value has risen from an estimated $950 million to more than $5 billion in that span?
Despite all that, a Yankees cap nowadays might more aptly be a green accountant’s visor than the interlocking NY.
From failing to go an extra year to land a pitcher that could secure a championship to giving up better prospects so that the Cubs and Rangers can pay down the pittance owed to Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo, the Yankees’ movements are constantly framed by the highly arbitrary luxury tax ceiling.
This year, that number is $210 million, with penalties on overages that get more onerous with each year a team exceeds it. In recent years, teams have treated that threshold like a cliff’s edge.
Until they don't.
For four years, the Los Angeles Dodgers were like the Yankees and Red Sox, tip-toeing around the tax while doing just enough to fall short of a title. Then, in 2020, they acquired and extended Mookie Betts, won it all, saw a certain inevitability to exceeding the cap and said, to hell with it.
Now, they are a super team, an assemblage of superstars young and old – and their payroll will land at around $280 million. Sure, every team’s situation is different, but the Dodgers’ willingness to bust past it – and likely stay above it, unless they plan a descent into the second division – illustrates that winning is a choice.
Worried about competitive balance?
Well, for all their largesse, these Dodgers are for now guaranteed nothing beyond a one-game wild card. MLB has produced a different champion seven consecutive years, a claim the NBA, NHL and WNBA cannot make.
No doubt, the revenue disparities between the Yankees and Dodgers and A’s and Pirates remain problematic. Yet many lower-revenue teams can’t be bothered to try. The Pirates’ largest contractual commitment remains the $60 million given catcher Jason Kendall – in 2000.
Baseball’s revenue disparities too often are a result of ownership blocs feuding with one another as the big kahunas look out for their best interests.
So, controls on the system are passed along to players and fans. Yet it’s so unnecessary in an era when everyone’s getting plenty rich.
Sure, there’s a snowball’s chance in Phoenix any of this gets done. But it’d be refreshing if the game opted to grant front offices the latitude to team-build without governors. To let fans dream of trade acquisitions without worrying about carrying the zero as they calculate estimated 40-man roster benefits for the purpose of the luxury tax.
If it’s truly America’s game, embrace the free market. Embrace freedom.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's looming labor war: Here's what new CBA should fix