In the first instalment of this three-part series on the state of the MLBPA and a potential strike, I talked a little bit about the groundwork of a flawed CBA agreement and how it helped lead to the situation we see today.
I barely touched on the market itself for free agents this year, and similarly with the way Owners and Players are handling the situation. I’d like to expound upon that a bit further in this second part of the series.
PART TWO: THE PLAYERS VS THE OWNERS
I’ve seen a quote floating around lately. I’m not exactly sure from where it originated, and there are several versions of the quote, but this is the most common: “If we only knew how much the owners actually make, the way we do players, we would be outraged/more sympathetic to players.”
It’s an interesting point that honestly, I had seldom thought of before. The game itself is raking in billions of dollars and considering that, a 150-200 million payroll doesn’t seem so outrageous anymore. With that increase in payroll, you’d quickly see why free agents are being more and more highly compensated. The market value of free agents is structured in a way that has, in years past, been a totally different measurement altogether than the actual “true value” of a player. As analytics have come to the forefront of every facet of the game, it has extended deeply into how we evaluate the men who play it. While some players may not have gotten such a huge extension or contract in the past because their actual value was underappreciated by contemporaries of the time, analytical data has led to a premium value being placed on not just the stars who easily pass the ‘eye-test’, but players who can get on base, field the ball or perhaps do well against a very specific kind of opponent, making them a specialist and therefore, quite useful. Recently developed stats like how many Wins Above a Replacement-level player you are, or WAR, have given a basic standard for the baseball community to go by when giving a generalized evaluation of a player. It may not be perfect, but it does get closer to measuring players with totally different skill sets, but who are special in their own unique way and valuable to a team for different reasons. All this translates to more money being spent across the board for all types of players. While there’s always a premium on the big “ace” starter, Ruthian power hitters and the potential “30/30” guy, the market is pretty fair towards the other guys too. And as the price of the biggest names in free agents go up, so do the names of the players underneath them. The spike in revenue and market value of these players should have led to a busy offseason for these guys. Men like Jake Arrieta, Yu Darvish, JD Martinez, Mike Moustakas and many others should have been off the board a long time ago. But why not?
Many are crying collusion among the owners, that there’s some attempt to manipulate the market in a way that results in overall salaries getting squashed down to a level closer to earth and less than the lofty expectations of the 21st century ballplayer. Those seeking evidence to this point can look no further than the case of numerous free agents who are complaining to their management teams about similar, if not identical, messages from all the club GM’s. No one is biting on what they’re presenting, and what they reply with is less than satisfactory. That, to them is a bad bad sign of something other than honest coincidence. Why is NO ONE stepping out, in the eyes of player agents, to compete and fill out a better roster? Could there truly be collusion among so many owners who’s teams are in such different scenarious from each other, led by GMs who are balancing the plans of being competitive now, with the new trend of building a steady stream of prospects either for currency, or to field a dynasty like the Cubs and Astros have so far succeeded in doing. Lets try to delve more deeply into the minds those owners, shall we?
Alot has changed since 1994. Of the 30 teams, only 9 of them still have the same ownership group in charge of the team. There has been massive turnover in that regard and it usually can be a good thing for that fanbase.
Take the LA Dodgers for an example. The issue with the McCourt ownership came to a head in 2011 and in March of 2012, a group led by Magic Johnson bought the team for 2 Billion dollars. Since then, they have not only outbid any other team for talent when the time came to add pieces, but they have accumulated the greatest collection of both front office intelligencia and a top notch scouting department. They draft and develop their own stars…like real stars. For every bust, there is a Cody Bellinger, Cory Seager, or seemingly, Alex Verdugo. They are the gold standard at this point to all other clubs, and their record in the regular season and the playoffs last year spoke for itself. Their blend of well-placed vets (no matter the cost) and homegrown talent are absolutely a model of excellence. And this is the team, along with other mega-market clubs, that most free agents look forward to doing business with.
THIS…this is the team that will usually break open the floodgates and get the market rolling. Big time players who are holding out for a large contract will eventually get their price on their terms, usually. But that’s not been the case this year…why?? Well, if you think team ownership has had a new cast of characters in place since the strike, then you’re probably not ready for the amount of evolution that has taken place in the job requirements of the MLB GM…
A big argument made by the Players’ Association during this time of seemingly inaction by teams is that they are in a “rush to the bottom” and are throwing true competition on the backburner in order to strip down to bare bones and start accumulating prospects. Jerry Dipoto, himself a former player as well as current, normally busy GM of the Mariners, said “There are more teams competing for a number one draft pick than the World Series.” As fans, its a hard experience watching your team flatout stink for 3 or 4 years in a proper rebuild. But if I’ve learned one thing in all of this since the Braves started theirs, it’s how much better the team’s prospects (no pun intended) are for long term success now compared to 3 years ago. The major difference this season, in the eyes of many, is that its not just small market teams rebuilding, nor mid-market teams at a crossroad headed down the precariously long and winding path of the “retool”; it’s the fact that teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and others are not sticking their necks out and going all-in like the usual norm has been in decades past. Due to the fact they are burdened by that hard cap..err, I mean luxury tax that we talked about in the previous article, they are looking to shed payroll on overpayed vets and looking to young, more affordable talent to succeed long-term. There is nothing wrong with that, and the fact the big markets aren’t trading and spending themselves out of a future and into oblivion any longer should strike fear into the heart of the smart, underdog teams trying to stay ahead of the proverbial curve. Moneyball is no more…because EVERYONE is Moneyball now, some are just alot more “Money-er”, if you wish. However, to the free agents involved, the fact that no team is willing to overpay them based on their true value (but appropriately for this market value) is making them furious. I get that. I get it more so because of the desperation they must feel as they see the writing on the wall in the form of next year’s free agent class…
When the Atlanta Braves traded away the millstone around their neck that was the Kemp contract to LAD for several players with high salaries that were ending after this year, two things were made clear: First of all, it opened an outfield spot for the #1 prospect in all of baseball, Ronald Acuña, and secondly, that all that money coming off the books in 2019 is leading us to something big next offseason. Machado, Harper, Donaldson, Bumgarner, Kershaw, Price, Kimbrel, Britton, Adam Jones, Blackmon, Hamels– those are just a few of the names that could potentially be available next year. And of course, Atlanta isn’t the only one looking anxiously at the date for next year’s Winter Meetings.
Every team on the brink of going for it, Braves included, are setting their pieces in motion for next year to be the one that puts several teams over the top and into the playoffs. Even the Dodgers, in that same trade that helped Atlanta, themselves went below the luxury tax threshold, effectively keeping them from having to pay a large penalty and use the money instead for the upcoming class. The market this offseason pales in comparison to that…and the GM’s know it more than anyone. Why on earth would they want to pay market value for guys who don’t project to have as successful or as many successful years ahead of them as the same projections of the men available next year. Some of those guys are in their mid to late twenties, approaching their prime years, but I’m supposed to miss out on Manny Machado because Mike Moustakas wants a 150 million dollar deal? A GM would be foolish to not see the better choice of the two.
I truly believe that had the big market teams continued status quo with what that had done in the days of old, we would be looking at a much different market and a different atmosphere in Major League Baseball altogether between the owners and players. But alas, all 30 teams are tight pursed this year as they look repeatedly at the calendar for the months of November and December, preparing for the competition and wooing of star free agents, and having dreams of Bryce Harper in pinstripes or Machado hitting balls off the Monsta for the home crowd…or whatever they dream about.
This I know: the situation between the forward thinking GM and their owners who are still always counting the bottom line in this world of unfathomable revenue accumulation, and the unfortunate players who are caught in a market that that is relatively forgettable in comparison with the next one by which they are being measured, is turning into a nightmare for all involved.
Up next, I’ll wrap up the discussion with how all of this affects your Atlanta Braves longterm starting with next offseason and maybe even some potential last minute FA signings we should make. Thanks guys!