In case nobody has noticed, baseball has developed a serious identity crisis with its marquee players.
How else can you explain so many being on the trading block, some at what might be considered below-value prices?
The Colorado Rockies, for instance, gave Nolan Arenado, not even arguably one of the best players in the game, a megabucks contract and apparently before the ink was dry started looking for takers. On the verge of free agency, Mookie Betts, one of the best players in the game, got traded by the Boston Red Sox, one of baseball’s wealthiest teams.
Kris Bryant, fresh off an ugly grievance hearing that keeps him away from free agency for two years, suddenly becomes an attractive trade piece for the Chicago Cubs, a team in transition just a few years removed from what was supposed to be the start of a dynasty.
It’s not like all of this developed overnight. It didn’t take the Texas Rangers long to discover the 10-year, $252 million contract they gave to Alex Rodriguez was such a bad idea they had to pay the New York Yankees $10 million per year to take Rodriguez off their hands — to this day the most sickening deal ever.
Unfortunately, it signaled a trend, not a warning.
Some teams have been buying themselves out of bad deals ever since, while others are finding ways within the current pay structure to avoid those mistakes. It is one of the big reasons why the just-getting-started negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement, which expires after this season, will bear close watching.
The Bryant case centered around his argument that the Cubs sent him back to the minor leagues only to keep him from recording a full year’s service time. After six years, the player can become a free agent.
Though the season has generally run about 180 days (it is 186 this year), it takes 172 to qualify for a full year, and you don’t need to be a mathematical genius to figure out what can happen. Few teams will cut it as close as the Cubs appeared to have done with Bryant in 2015, but you get the idea.
Baseball has been dominated by analytics of late, and none is more important than the age of a player when he hits free agency — and from a team standpoint, the later the better. While accepting the Bryant verdict, Tony Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the association would continue to monitor the situation “to ensure clubs field their best players.”
That comment would seem to be directed specifically at teams admittedly in “rebuilding” mode, that have precedent on their side in an issue that will get a lot of attention before the next CBA is ratified.
While they are at it, the MLBPA might want to take a look at a couple “giveaways” from prior negotiations — eligibility for salary arbitration and the option rule. In the negotiating world it’s very hard to get back what has been given away, but in these cases it might be worth the effort.
In its original form, players became eligible for salary arbitration after two years. More than a few players got hurt when they weren’t “grandfathered in” when it went to three years during negotiations back in the 1980s. The only exception is for “Super Two” players, those in the top 22 percent of players between two and three years of service.
Players are allowed to be optioned to the minor leagues three times after they’ve reached the 40-man roster. There was a time when each option counted, but the current rule allows multiple trips to the minors within the same season — which ends up being another way to control a player’s service time, not only for free agency but arbitration as well.
This is hardly just building a case for the players, because it’s also a case for improving the product from the standpoint of a fan. At the top of baseball’s financial structure, there is a luxury tax. There is also a competitive balance stipend and other means to maintain competitiveness for all 30 teams.
But there are few, if any, restrictions on the other end. The bar is set low, pretty much established by teams that go the rebuild route. And there are no guarantees — except, of course, for those expensive contracts. In a perfect world, every team would be all in, all the time, but in case you missed the memo, this is not a perfect world and rebuilds do not come with a guarantee.
Making the decision to rebuild — go “all out,” if you will — is as tough to sell as it is to buy. Is it worth more than 500 losses in five years to become competitive? If so, what’s the legitimate return?
Rebuild or reload? Tread water or go in the tank?
I’m not so sure that solving some of the players’ issues wouldn’t be a good thing. Would earlier eligibility be such a bad thing? Or might it help fix an arbitration system that can only be called a mess?
Why not a minimum salary for each year before arbitration? Why not go to arbitration and risk losing what is essentially a non-guaranteed contract rather than trade for hand-me-downs?
Who knows, it might help solve the identity crisis.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.