Commentary: Stars not blameless in free-agent morass

Sam Mellinger
Kansas City Star

Why baseball’s unemployed stars should blame themselves and prepare for a bigger Baseball’s internal and escalating war is between millionaires and billionaires, between men rich enough to charter their own jets and men who own jets. The fight is over relative crumbs in an industry worth billions of dollars from a game so many of us love and played as kids. That money is a direct product of that love.

There are no sympathetic characters here.

Not the ballplayers unimpressed by nine-figure contract offers, and not the owners who assume no real risk and certainly won’t use falling payrolls to lower ticket prices.

As a rule, I tend to side with players in these situations. They’re the ones who put in the work, who we pay to watch, who we remember when they’re done.

In this particular situation, it is really, really, really difficult to side with players.

Many of the best free agents remain without jobs, including former Royals Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Jason Vargas – who could help virtually any team. There are many factors involved, including shifting valuations from teams, specific needs not matching with available free agents, and a beaucoup class of talent available after this season.

But this week, the union and commissioner’s office have openly criticized each other. Union chief Tony Clark accused some teams of “a race to the bottom,” and the commissioner’s office blamed agents for misreading the market.

Collusion alleged

Scott Boras, agent for Hosmer and Moustakas and many of baseball’s biggest stars, has referenced collusion, which the commissioner’s office called “inflammatory and unsubstantiated.” But Boras is only making public what many on the union side have been discussing this winter. That it’s even a topic speaks to how broken the relationship is between players and owners.

Let’s be real about it:

This is the players’ fault.

Just like all humans and entities run by humans, teams are operating in accordance to the incentives put in place, incentives that players negotiated and signed off on a year ago.

The players literally sold negotiating power and earnings – in free agency, in the draft, everywhere – for a better lifestyle with things like travel and days off.

It was shocking at the time, almost certain to sacrifice future wages, and the effect has only been amplified by outside forces.

This is a new problem for the players, and it will require a new solution.

Players essentially gave up on fighting a salary cap. That genie is not going back in the bottle. The luxury tax is both too low and growing too slowly, and there is a hard cap on amateur spending. The current CBA, ratified before last season, represents a stark and important shift of power away from the union and toward the teams.

That would be more palatable if owners adjusted ticket prices, but of course that’s not happening either. Players are being paid less, fans are paying more, and it’s all going into the bank accounts of the owners.

That’s the players’ fault, and fixing it will require more than whining about the offers that aren’t coming in.

The players’ side of the current CBA reflects complacency, entitlement, and too much trust that spending would continue to increase simply because spending has always increased.

Wise owners

Baseball teams are smarter than ever, and only getting smarter. In the old days, free agent contracts bloated because teams were limited on what they could spend before players hit free agency. But now, if teams are finally acting upon the long held truth that most of the biggest free agent contracts are poor investments, the entire system should be rethought.

They clearly did not see the evolving way teams are valuing players coming. Blaming them for that lack of foresight is unfair, but actively encouraging teams to spend less was unconscionable. In effect, players gave richer teams an excuse not to spend without giving poorer teams matching resources and incentive.

If anything, poorer teams are encouraged to spend less, not just for the money saved but to develop younger players while drafting high and having a bigger pool to spend on amateur talent.

The current system is driven on each team being motivated to increase its own revenues, with safeguards that protect small markets. But allowing the luxury tax to serve as a defacto salary cap with market incentives that encourage tanking was a terrible idea, and has torpedoed the system.

The fix must come from the players.

A soft cap is fine, but it should be countered by a spending floor. This can be done individually or as a collective. Payrolls have not kept up with league revenues, and in some years have actually decreased while revenues steadily climb.

NFL and NBA salaries are tied to league revenues. Even with complicated “carveouts” for things like stadium credits, those systems ensure at least some balance, and that as the leagues grow more popular everyone benefits.

The pay structure could be brought into modern times, too. If teams are valuing younger players more and older players less, then an adjustment should be made to increase the salaries given through arbitration before players hit free agency.

Baseball has typically resisted major change to its pay structure, and particularly any outside forces on spending. From the union’s side, this has usually been explained as a matter of principle. Free markets. Supply and demand. Pay us our worth. Players and owners are never going to completely agree, and they shouldn’t, but the system has generally worked for both sides.

But change is happening, and it’s negatively affecting what players are paid while greatly increasing owners’ profits.

Unless the current trend of depressed spending is a blip – and good luck finding anyone on the players’ side who believes this is a blip – the system is no longer working with fairness.

Maybe that changes in the coming weeks. Maybe teams start spending, and not just spending, but at rates that generally match revenues.

We’ll know if that’s the case within a month or so, but players should be preparing.