Oh, goodness, the hand-wringing.
So much hand-wringing over this slow-moving free-agent market. From the players’ side. From the media. From the fans.
It’s enough to drive a free-market advocate into considering … salary caps and floors?
In the words of David Puddy from “Seinfeld”: Yeah, that’s right. If the Hot Stove trends lead to such misery in and around the game, then perhaps it’s time to call it an era and fall in line with the other major North American sports leagues.
Or let’s refine the point: The players and their representatives have between now and the end of the 2021 season, when this current Basic Agreement expires, to win back some leverage from their employers without resorting to a system and philosophy they dread. Because right now, you could argue the implementation of salary floors would help the veteran players more than the formalization of salary caps would hurt them.
The NFL, NBA and NHL all deploy salary caps and floors for their teams, and while none of those leagues lead stress-free existences, minimal agita surrounds player salaries and offseason action. Whereas in baseball, Manny Machado’s and Bryce Harper’s continued search for contracts that meet their desires often gets treated like a hostage crisis of some sort.
We’ve all seen what has transpired: Team owners have by and large empowered their front offices to make more analytical and less emotional decisions. That has led to many free agents over the age of 30 being shunned. It has led to tanking, or at least to recognizing the futility of putting together, say, a 75- to 80-win team as opposed to being all-in or not-at-all-in. On the field, we’ve seen the explosion of shifts, bullpen manipulation (including, of course, the opener), boom-or-bust hitters focusing on launch angle and more.
Some of these changes undoubtedly have contributed to the industry attendance drops. Nevertheless, they’re all legal under the collective-bargaining agreement, and virtually all of the successful teams — clubs that enjoyed attendance increases — utilize at least some of these innovations.
The teams have brained up, in other words, and the players and their advocates should react the way Al Pacino did in “Heat” when he realized just how worthy a foe he had in criminal Robert De Niro: “I mean, is this guy something, or is he something? This crew is good.” Instead, too many have reacted like Grampa Simpson yelling at a cloud, complaining about the eradication of the status quo.
Jeff Berry, who took over CAA’s baseball division after Brodie Van Wagenen left to become the Mets’ general manager, distributed a memo last summer, in the spirit of “Jerry Maguire,” that featured this sentiment: “Rather than saber rattling about a potential strike in three years, the focus should be on taking pro-active steps to address current labor issues in the hope of avoiding a strike in 2021.”
Yes! Fight intellect with intellect. The game’s most prominent agent, Scott Boras, already has come up with creative contract structures to make a Mariner and return Zach Britton to the Yankees. For the next round of collective bargaining, the players must come up with creative suggestions — and concessions they’re willing to make in order to obtain them — that will pay players more handsomely in their 20s if they’re destined to not get paid in their 30s, and that will not reward teams for losing. And Major League Baseball, for the game’s greater good, must be open to such dramatic renovations.
If the two sides, which have experienced an exceptionally high level of turbulence lately, can’t hammer out a fair agreement — or, more cynically, if the players continue to take a beating on the open market — then let’s get ahead of what a salary cap and floor could look like in baseball.
Using MLB’s reported revenue figure of $9.4 billion and its assertion that the players made 54 percent of that, we’d be talking about something in the neighborhood of a $170 million cap and a $153 million floor for 2019.
As per data from the Associated Press, seven teams spent more than $170 million last year — only the Red Sox and Nationals exceeded the luxury-tax threshold, which has become a de facto salary cap — and 18 spent less than $153 million. The numbers would increase each season in concert with industry revenue, and they could insert whatever bells and whistles they desire to keep teams honest.
The benefits are clear: Competitive balance would improve dramatically. The game’s disappearing middle class (let’s call them Generation Neil Walker) would reclaim its place in the hierarchy. And with everyone knowing each other’s precise spending parameters, looking at a finite supply of talent, the market would move at a far brisker pace — so brisk, perhaps, that the Winter Meetings might have to cease to exist, or at least be dramatically reimagined. The high majority of players could ring in the new year with their employment settled.
The fans’ hand-wringing would drop dramatically, whether it’s about a team’s individual spending habits or the overall pace of activity.
The drawbacks? No more free market, naturally. Any worker of any kind would oppose this. Your least-favorite owners would get to keep even more of their profits without scrutiny.
Some perspective: This winter has proceeded more smoothly than its immediate, disastrous predecessor. When the Yankees intelligently signed DJ LeMahieu on Friday, the infielder became the 20th of The Post’s top 30 free agents to commit to a team, with five of the top 10 signed. At this weekend on last year’s calendar, 11 of our top 30 and three of our top 10 had landed safely.
Boras, who prides himself on deliberation, reps two of the top five, Harper and Dallas Keuchel. Machado clearly didn’t think his ghastly October would hurt him this badly. The other two guys, Craig Kimbrel and A.J. Pollock, have draft compensation attached to them. You can see why they’re all still out there, even if you don’t agree with it.
Because of such extenuating circumstances, I’d like to give this free market more time, yet who likes hand-wringing? The Hot Stove League has devolved from a pleasure to a pain. Something’s gotta give. The players — and, to a lesser degree, the owners — are on the clock to determine a more palatable resolution before settling for this nuclear option.
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