There’s good news and bad news as pitchers and catchers report for spring training for the 2019 baseball season. Which do you want first?
That’s no surprise you want the good news first. Almost everybody takes that choice first. The 2019 season will start on time and once again there will be no work stoppage endangering fans’ enjoyment of a full regular season, along with the hoped-for riveting set of playoff series.
And more good news is that the Basic Agreement — the terms by which Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association operate — doesn’t run out until Dec. 1, 2021. That means, there shouldn’t be any work stoppages until then.
The bad news, and I think it gets worse every day for the large majority of MLB players, is their total combined compensation is beginning to go down.
There’s a lot of talk in everyday news about President Trump and his alleged collusion with Russia, but the very first time I heard the word was in and around MLB owners acting in concert with other owners to keep salaries down during the free agencies of 1985-1987.
It’s too long and complicated to go into each case that affected each year’s players. However, when all was said and done, MLB and the Players Association agreed on a settlement of $280 million awarded to the players through the MLB Players Association, which would decide how to distribute that to players damaged by the collusion.
Even with 181 or more players still listed by ESPN’s free-agent tracker as of mid-January. But it’s hard to call this collusion because the market is moving and the very best players of our time are getting serious offers.
However, the numbers don’t lie, and 2018 marked the first time since 2010 when the total industry spent $3,027,600 less than it had in 2009. This past year, the total compensation in baseball went down by $18,016,600.
That may not seem like a lot of money when you are talking about total compensation expenditures for MLB being at $4,227,041,948 (just so we are clear, that is over $4 billion in compensation).
Clearly, one of the changes we are undergoing in baseball is that very few players will get contracts of more than two years. To use the easiest of analogies, if this were the movies, Tom Cruise and Robert Downey Jr. may be making huge sums of money, but all the bit players and supporting casts are being squeezed to get the work.
While I don’t purport to do deep analysis on these sorts of numbers every day, I read an article by Eno Sarris of TheAthletic.com that was published on Jan. 7. The article was titled, “Which Teams are Best Positioned to Spend More on Players This Season?”
The numbers he used in this article, of course, didn’t take into account the unsigned players currently free agents, but the numbers did include the projected arbitration numbers being decided before spring training actually begins.
To be clear, this is only about 10 teams, meaning that the other 20 could be doing something amazingly different. But the 10 teams Sarris estimates have the most money left to spend are lumped into two groups of five. The first group of the Orioles, Blue Jays, Giants, Rangers and Royals are lumped together because their common cause is they aren’t likely to compete in 2019. Among these five teams, they have approximately $237 million less in payroll at this time than they spent last year.
The second group of five teams that could contend if they do some significant additions are the Twins, Indians, Rays, Pirates and Astros. Between those five teams, they are down $117.6 million in player expenditures at this time.
Combined between these 10 teams, that is approximately $355 million less these 10 teams have spent so far. I am sure as these aforementioned roughly 181 free agents get signed, those giant-sized numbers will go down some. But my bet is that number of $18 million less in total industry compensation between 2017 and 2018 will look penny-ante when 2019 is lumped in.
MLB Players Association head Tony Clark could hit a few long balls in his days as a major league player. But in his first at-bat against Commissioner Rob Manfred negotiating this current five-year deal that ends in December 2021, he was made to look foolish.
To his credit, he has taken the approach of a manager, who pinch-hit for himself when they start talking again about the years after the ‘21 season. The union announced back in late August that well-known sports attorney Bruce Meyer was named “senior director of collective bargaining and legal” for the MLB Players Association.
Enjoy your uninterrupted baseball while you have it, because from everything I read about Meyer and his background, it looks like baseball’s uninterrupted labor peace since 1995 could come to an abrupt halt before the 2022 season.
Stan “the Fan” Charles is the founder and publisher of PressBox.