MLB Stars Have to Prepare for War with Cheap Owners Pocketing Millions

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJanuary 9, 2019

If even Bryce Harper is having a hard time getting paid, your league might have problems.
If even Bryce Harper is having a hard time getting paid, your league might have problems.Manuel Balce Ceneta/Associated Press

Let's start with the good news: It's been more than two decades since the last work stoppage in Major League Baseball, and an end to the good times isn't imminent.

Now for the obligatory bad news: As stingy owners become more and more wary of spending on disgruntled players, "How much longer can it last?" is becoming an increasingly good question.

As the Associated Press (via ESPN.com) reported Tuesday, teams spent $4.23 billion on players in 2018. It sounds like a lot, yet this marked the first drop in spending since 2010. The AP's Ronald Blum reported in December that the average MLB salary fell for the first time since 2004.

Meanwhile, Maury Brown of Forbes reported Monday that MLB's baseball-related revenue increased for a 16th straight year to $10.3 billion. That's not even counting MLB's sale of BAMTech to Disney, which was worth $2.58 billion.

See the big picture? It's not so pretty, huh?

Granted, it could be uglier. As The Ringer's Ben Lindbergh covered last February, MLB's owners and players maintained a roughly 50-50 split of revenue every year between 2010 and 2017. For now, at least, 2018 looks like an outlier.

Of course, some might also interject that John Q. MLB Player does just fine. An average salary of $4.1 million ought to be plenty to play a "kid's game" and so on and so forth.

Like it or not, however, Major League Baseball is an entertainment product, and the players are the ones who do the entertaining. They have every right to the largest slice of the pie they can get.

To this end, there are indeed more barriers in their way than there used to be.

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Nowhere is this more evident than on the free-agent market. It was the avenue for players to find great riches for decades. Heck, it paid out a whopping $3.84 billion just four years ago, according to Spotrac.

But that now looks like a fluky one-off rather than a sign of things to come. Free-agent spending didn't surpass even $1.5 billion in either of the last two years, and the latter of those sent up red flags aplenty.

Notable 2017-18 free agents such as Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Jake Arrieta and Alex Cobb lingered on the market into February and beyond, and only Hosmer and Cobb beat their projected paydays from MLB Trade Rumors. Other stars—e.g., Mike Moustakas, Lance Lynn and Greg Holland—had to settle for one-year deals with small guarantees.

Thus came dire warnings about labor strife just over the horizon. Agent-turned-New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen cautioned in February that "a fight is brewing." Later in July, MLBPA chief Tony Clark offered a less than subtle shot across the bow when he was asked about the possibility of a strike.

"Our players," he said, per Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com, "are very passionate about the rights they have, [and] to the extent there are challenges to those rights, historically I would suggest those have manifested themselves in a particular way."

There have been more than a few strikes and lockouts in recent MLB history. In some ways, what's happening now is the opposite of what led to the 1994-1995 strike, which infamously resulted in the cancellation of the '94 World Series.

As Cliff Corcoran recalled for SI.com in 2014, MLB owners' frustration with free agency ultimately led them to shoot themselves in the foot when they got caught colluding against free agents in the 1980s. That kickstarted an escalation of player salaries, which in turn pushed the owners in favor of a salary cap.

Both sides dug in their heels, but the owners effectively lost when, in April 1995, future Supreme Court justice Sonia Sotomayor granted an injunction from the National Labor Relations Board citing unfair labor practices on the part of the owners. Following that, play resumed under the rules of the old collective bargaining agreement.

Likewise, the dough resumed flowing to the players. Per Lindbergh's article, they were pulling in roughly 60 percent of the league's revenue by the late 1990s and early 2000s.

OAKLAND, CA - AUGUST 11:  Fans hold up signs in protest of the baseball strike prior to the game between the Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics at the Oakland Coliseum on August 11, 1994 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Brad Mangin/MLB Photos vi
Brad Mangin/Getty Images

After failing in their attempt at the nuclear option in the early 1990s, owners have spent the last couple of decades pursuing smaller, seemingly benign cost-control measures in the name of "competitive balance." Perhaps because they've simply wanted to keep the peace, the players have conceded at every turn.

There are now spending limits on the draft and the international amateur market. For free agents, the qualifying offer system ties star players to draft-pick compensation, which for many clubs is an excuse to give them a wide berth.

Most alarming is how the luxury tax has morphed into something more like a salary cap. Under the current agreement, the thresholds are relatively low—$206 million for 2019—and the penalties for going over are severe. After years of ignoring it, even the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers fear it.

"We've given the owners and teams an excuse not to pay top free agents, to have a reason to say no," slugger Brandon Moss said last February, according to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic. "The only reason those things are there is because we bargained them in."

In addition to being more fearful of the luxury tax, teams are understandably wary of investing in players' twilight years. As Rosenthal noted, it's a double-whammy that disincentivizes teams from pursuing both long-term contracts and shorter-term deals with high average annual values.

Even Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are feeling the squeeze. As a pair of 26-year-olds who've combined for 10 All-Star appearances, they're more appealing than Giancarlo Stanton, whose $325 million contract is MLB's all-time high-water mark. Thus, it didn't seem particularly out there when MLB Trade Rumors projected Harper and Machado to revitalize free-agent spending with a combined haul of $810 million.

John Bazemore/Associated Press

According to Jon Heyman of Fancred, however, Machado might not even make $300 million. Even if Harper gets $350 million, that would be well below his $400 million target. As such, neither may achieve the modern-day equivalent of Alex Rodriguez's $252 million megadeal from 2000, which is worth roughly $360 million in 2018 money.

With other stars such as Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, A.J. Pollock and Yasmani Grandal struggling to find work with spring training fast approaching, it's far from assured that this offseason will wash away the bad taste left by the last one. Player earnings for 2019 may be doomed to stagnation as a result.

At this point, the date to circle is Dec. 1, 2021. That's when the collective bargaining agreement is due to expire. Before or after then, the players could finally refuse to stop playing Mr. Nice Guy and threaten a strike.

They could seek a total overhaul of baseball's financial system, but it'll be simplest for them to unify behind reclaiming free agency. This could be as basic as pushing for player-friendly changes to the qualifying offer and luxury tax. If they want to try their luck, they could also push for smaller windows of club control before players are eligible for free agency.

For now, it's clear enough that the players have a gripe. Whether they'll act on it should be less a question of if and more a matter of when.    

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