Major management-labor troubles are brewing below the surface in Major League Baseball. With the 2018 Spring Training camps opening in a few days, over a hundred free agents remain unsigned, including many of the best players on the market. The Players Association is preparing to open a special training camp just for all the unsigned players, and shouting foul. They are alleging illegal collusion among the team owners to keep salaries down.
A lack of signings on this scale has never happened before, and agents and their player clients are increasingly hinting that dark forces are afoot. Fanning the flames are sportswriters and commentators, whose left-wing sympathies are only slightly less dominant than in the rest of the journalism field. The content on MLB’s own radio station on satellite radio has become an almost unbroken rant about how unfair it is that the players aren’t getting “what they have worked so hard for.” The theory appears to be that employees decide how much they are worth, and their self-serving assessments shouldn’t be challenged.
It is not that many of the free agents haven’t offers for their services on the table. It’s not that they don’t have multiple year contracts that will pay them millions of dollars on the table. They do, and thus many of the unsigned players can substantially fix the bitter impasse by saying “yes.” Oddly, they are finding that public opinion is not substantially in their corner as they choose to bitch instead.
The poster boy for this controversy is, as luck would have it, a player who is sought by my very own Boston Red Sox. He is J.D. Martinez, a slugging outfielder just entering his thirties who had the best year of his life in 2017. Naturally, he wants a large, multi-year contract that will leave him set for life; this is his big and probably only shot. He also has the most aggressive, successful and, in my view, unethical of sports agents, Scott Boras, who began the free agent auction season by announcing that J.D. would be seeking a contract worth 250 million dollars or more.
The problem is that not a lot of teams can afford such a contract, and those that can are, finally, wising up. Multiple year contracts have a way of blowing up in a team’s face. Analytics are now widely used to allow teams to make intelligent projections regarding just how much a player will add in value and wins. This year, most of the richest clubs are not hurting for home run hitters or outfielders, which leaves the Red Sox, who despite winning their division last year for the second year in a row didn’t hit as many homers in doing so as the spoiled Boston fans are used to, as the most obvious landing place for Martinez. Sure enough, the team offered Martinez a five year deal reputed to be worth 125 million bucks. No other team has offered anything close, and it is unlikely that any team will. Boras and J.D. still say it’s not enough. They want a sixth year, and more cash. The Red Sox see no reason to bid against themselves, and have said, in essence., ‘There’s our offer. Take it or leave it.’ Somehow the baseball writers and the player see Boston as the villain in all this.
As George Will likes to say, “Well.”
The world doesn’t work like that, and never has. I heard one of the MLB mouths, a former and unemployed general manager (and now we know why), go on an extended rant about how it was outrageous and unfair that players like Martinez “who have worked so hard to earn a big contract” weren’t getting it, “it” being defined as their fondest dreams. To begin with, for a player like Martinez, his complaint is about numbers and ego, not reality or genuine need. According to records, he has already made at least 22,000,000 dollars in his career. Unless he has a drug habit or collects sold gold cars, he’s already set for life. So are his grandchildren yet conceived. All of the usual arguments about how athletes have short careers and how a player is obligated to take care of his family are disingenuous at this point. Martinez doesn’t have to work another day in his life right now. He also gets a guaranteed six-figure pension for the rest of his life once he retires. It’s good to be a baseball player.
What, in terms of quality of life, is the difference to J.D. between a five-year $125, 000,000 contract and, say, a six-year $150, 000,000 contract? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Now, the difference means a lot more to his agent, but that is, or should be irrelevant. The difference also mean a lot to the Red Sox and other players. Money they have to pay to J.D. is money they can’t use to improve the club elsewhere. It is bad business and incompetent management to pay any player millions more just because he has his little heart set on more.
The same MLB radio host argued last week that anyone who objected to J.D. or the other players getting the salaries they covet are just plain jealous. Balderdash. (A Facebook friend—a teacher— snapped when I used that word in an online debate last week, saying that it was rude, arrogant and cruel. I replied that I regretted using the word, and that I ought to have used “Bullshit.”) I don’t begrudge players the millions they earn: they have unique talents, they are the main product in a multi-billion dollar industry, I love baseball beyond all reason, and I believe in capitalism. I just know that placing money above all other values is stupid for anyone, and that players are being irrational when they behave and talk like Martinez, who is now saying that he doesn’t want to sign with Boston because the team has been “inflexible”.
Teams learn slowly, but they learn. In the graphic above are the six largest long-term contracts signed by free agent players in recent years From left to right, the results have been BUST, BUST, BUST, not too bad (Cano), BUST, and BUST.
Yesterday, I heard a lesser player, who has signed a paltry contract for just a couple million dollars to be a reserve outfielder with the Pirates, say that his fellow players are perplexed because the practice used to be that you would be paid by teams according to what you had done in past seasons, and suddenly teams are basing salaries in what you are likely to do in the future.
Bill James, the baseball stats pioneer who devised the concept of signature significance that I often cite here, wrote years ago that a player’s career was like a watermelon. His first team that controlled him in his early and peak playing days before the age of thirty will pay a reasonable price for the heart of the melon. Then that team, or succeeding teams via free agency, must pay larger salary dollars, based on that now-consumed fruit, for the less tasty fruit and the rind that has been left behind. (James, not coincidentally, works for the Red Sox.) He posited in that essay that this makes no sense. Why it took so long for baseball management to catch up, I do not know.
Martinez is 30. Virtually all players decline after that age, and all but the best and luckiest are on their way out by 34 or earlier. The Boston contract offer for J.D. reflects the market, projections, and reality, and the players and their pro-labor shills in the press are calling unethical what is neither unfair nor unreasonable.
The Red Sox are nicer than I am. I would tell J.D. that his offer will be reduced by $250,000 every day he doesn’t sign, and will disappear entirely in a week.
It’s called, appropriately enough, “hardball.”