On the past and future of baseball labor

When Major League Baseball and the Player’s Association announced the new Collective Bargaining Agreement a few weeks ago, a lot was made about the new policy for international free agents. In lieu of the international draft that owners pushed hard for, the two sides settled on what amounts to a hard salary cap of $4.75-5.75 million per team per year on all international signings. In essence, the owners got exactly what they wanted, cutting their costs by suppressing player salaries.

After the details of the CBA emerged, Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller hosted an episode of Effectively Wild in which they speculated where teams might start filtering their money now that the brakes had been put on the international market. It was during that conversation that I really, for the first time, began to think about how bizarre the baseball business actually is.

Let’s run down this logic.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred: Great news. The players wouldn’t agree to an international draft, but instead we got them to settle on a hard salary cap on all international signings. That will cut costs dramatically and put more money in your pockets!

Owners: Incredible news! Hey there, GM…

GM: Yes, boss?

Owners: Now that we’ve prevented ourselves from spending money in the international market, find a new place to spend it.

GM:

Lewis Black has a great bit about how clean tap water once flowed to every home in America, but then at some point we decided we’d save some money and not clean the water so well. Then, with the money we’d saved, we could go to the store and buy bottled water.

I’ve begun to think about the baseball business a lot like that joke.

***

I’m currently reading “Lords of the Realm,” by John Helyar, a fantastic book about baseball’s labor history. As of this writing I’m only about halfway through, but there have already been a few quotes from Marvin Miller, the great union leader of the 60s and 70s, that help illustrate that point.

For some context, we’re in 1980 and free agency has already been in place for a few years. The owners aren’t happy about it at all, yet they are spending like mad men. They’ve been put through the ringer by Miller and the union for the better part of a decade, and now they’re eager to regain some power. They’re pushing for some form of compensation to be awarded to any team that loses a premier player in free agency, but Miller is staunchly opposed. He explains to the players that a compensation system, even if only applied to the star players, will hurt them all. Then he drops this line:

“The owners are out to control themselves through you.”

Almost 40 years later, that statement is still true. The owners fight to control themselves through the players, because they cannot trust themselves to do it on their own.

Is that a hard and fast rule, though? Are teams so unable to control themselves in a free market that they will continue to spend and spend? Or does there come a point where they adapt? And if so, is it possible we’re already seeing signs of it?

Take this offseason for instance. Only one player has cashed in for over $100 million (Yoenis Cespedes), while most of the other marquee names have struggled to find buyers. Edwin Encarnacion was considered arguably the premier bat on the market. He turned down a four-year, $80 million offer to remain with Toronto early in the offseason only to settle for $20 million less than that from Cleveland. Mark Trumbo led baseball with 47 home runs last year and is still without a home, now just hoping he can earn something in the $40-50 million range. Jose Bautista might have to settle for a one-year deal and try his hand again next winter.

I don’t mean to get ahead of myself. Overall, this year’s free agent crop is one of the weakest in recent history, and all of those players have their warts (namely, none of them play a lick of defense). Maybe that’s all the explanation we need.

There are two things truer today than at any other period in history, though. First is that baseball’s aging curve has shifted; the game skews younger than ever. Second, teams are smarter than ever. It seems at least plausible then that teams might become more and more hesitant to wade into the free agent pool if all it has to offer are players on the wrong side of 30. If that is the case, as it appears to have been for at least this offseason, and with spending on both domestic and international amateurs both now essentially capped, what other avenue is there for players to get their share of the revenue pie?

Maybe this is a lot of speculation over nothing, and Marvin Miller is right: no matter what, the owners won’t be able to help themselves. But if a new labor war does happen to be somewhere over the horizon, I imagine it will be fought over these stakes.

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