While some agents contend that collusion is to blame for the deep freeze that has caused players like J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer to struggle to find contracts close to what players of their ilk have landed in recent off-seasons, it seems fairly obvious that advanced metrics have caused teams to be more resistant than ever to paying hitters and pitchers past their prime.
It doesn’t seem that owners had a secret meeting in which they agreed they wouldn’t bid on players as much as they got smart — finally — about paying guys whose best days are behind them by age 32 years old tens of millions of dollars to play baseball until they’re 38.
If that’s the case, we’re probably on the verge of a professional baseball labor war.
If teams don’t want to pay players past 32 or 33 years old, those players simply are no longer going to stand for being contractually tied to their first club until they’re 29 or 30 and thereby limited in the amount of cash they can earn when they’re at their best.
So, look forward to a major standoff that could see the entire financial structure of the game be turned on its head.
On paper, it makes sense that guys like former St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols make more money when they’re in the prime of their career than they do in the end when they’re a shadow of the fearsome competitor they used to be. But how do you legislate that financial structure in a way that is fair to everyone — including fans?
Baseball has a free market economy. Players get as much as they can command in open bidding, and that causes prices to become hyperinflated because of the fact that so few elite sluggers and hurlers are available. That’s why well-traveled power hitter Yoenis Cespedes, a .274 career hitter with a .328 on-base percentage and a .498 slugging percentage, was able to land a four-year, $110-million contract last winter that will pay him from his age 31-35 seasons while Yu Darvish (31), Jake Arrieta (32), Mike Moustakas (29), Hosmer (28), Martinez (30), Lorenzo Cain (32), and Lance Lynn (31) — eight of the top nine free agents on the market — still are unsigned as we near the beginning of February.
Right now, young, controllable players are all the rage because they can’t demand huge contracts on the open market. Those are the guys with a future ahead of them, so, arguably, they should be the ones who carry the most financial value. It’s just the opposite of the way things work right now.
So, what can be done to fix this all around inequitable system?
Owners aren’t just going to agree to let players be free agents earlier. That’s not good for the clubs because they invest so much in trying to develop players while a tiny fraction of the players who they bring into their minor leagues ever see the light of day in The Show.
That sort of environment also isn’t good for fans, either. While the old cliché says the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the player’s name on the back, is it really? Fans pay to buy tickets so they can watch stars perform amazing feats of strength, precision and agility and they become emotionally attached to those players.
Would Ozzie Smith be a legendary hall of famer if players switched teams every two years? Fans in St. Louis absolutely adore their local hero. The chants of Oz-zie, Oz-zie peal through the stands every time he appears at Busch Stadium two decades after he played his last game for St. Louis. But would he get the same reception if he threw out the first pitch at a San Diego Padres game? If players move around every couple of years, fans will just view them as anonymous nobodies.
Because of this, I don’t see a hard salary cap system as a way to let players have more freedom to move around in exchange for owners spending less on the back end of players’ careers. Migratory players don’t create the bonds that draw fans to the ballpark. The Oakland Athletics notoriously churn their roster constantly as a way to control costs. It’s no coincidence that the A’s have the second-lowest attendance in baseball, ahead of only the small budget Tampa Bay Rays.
I don’t see any easy solution to this problem because the players aren’t going to accept any plan that greatly reduces their ability to make money. It’s tough to live on a $30-million contract when the guys around you are in the middle of $150-million deals.
But one thing we can be sure of, no matter what owners can do to save money, we can bet that the cost of tickets, a beverage or a cap aren’t going down anytime soon.