MLB money goes to free agents during lockout looms

The leftovers from Thanksgiving are still in the fridge and Max Scherzer is already on his way to the Mets. That alone proves that the baseball off-season, which tends to be sluggish, has come to life.

But is this a spate of spending or just an excitement? Is Free Agency now a winter wonderland for gamers or does it hardly snow any more? Either way, the forecast calls for a lockout if the collective agreement expires at midnight Eastern Time on Wednesday.

It would be the first work stoppage since August 1994, when the owners tricked players into a strike that canceled the World Series. At least that timing is better since spring training is more than two months away. Failure to reach a new CBA, however, would trigger a transaction freeze, which explains all of the recent activity. Free agents want to find a home before settling down for the long, cold, lonely winter.

It shouldn’t be like that. Perhaps the owners and players will all settle their differences quickly, but no one expects that. The economy of the game deserves a careful, thoughtful recalibration. But it’s hard to believe that the system is flawed enough to shut the industry down.

Since the last negotiations, after the 2016 season, the owners have done a nice trick to lower the players’ salaries overall. The average salary fell more than 6 percent from opening day 2017 to opening day 2021 to $ 4.17 million. The franchise values ​​continue to rise, of course, because so many billionaires want to join.

Nobody – player or owner – cries poorly. Players have said for years that the employment contract discourages teams from spending by offering incentives to lose, which hurts their competitive instinct. They also stress that as teams spend less on veterans, younger players should be better paid.

Both are useful points. However, several losing teams turned to the free agency this month to spend their way back into the competition. And the Tampa Bay Rays have just given Wander Franco, who has played 70 games in the majors, a $ 182 million deal.

“The Rays have given me the support I need, the development, the people who have them here,” Franco said Monday through an interpreter at a press conference at Tropicana Field. “I want to stay here my entire career.”

It doesn’t always work that way. The players who signed the first $ 100, 200, and 300 million dollar contracts in baseball – Kevin Brown, Alex Rodriguez, and Giancarlo Stanton – were all sold to the Yankees for several years. But Franco set another new standard: most of the money is guaranteed to a player with less than a year of service in the major league.

The compromise is that Franco gave up several years of free agency when the free market could have determined its value. But if a 20-year-old gamer is looking to make $ 223 million before his 33rd birthday (the deal includes an option of $ 41 million for a 12th year), that seems like a wise move.

Here are some other notable, widely reported contractual arrangements from November (some will not be official until the parties sign the contract language and medical details):

Perhaps the timing of all these steps is not accidental. A spate of early deals could give the impression that everything is fine. A lockout would then turn off the faucet and make non-signed players scream for an employment contract.

The owners have proposed a minimum salary for all teams – accompanied, of course, by lowering the luxury tax limit at the upper end of the scale. But the sport actually has a more competitive balance than the budget hawks are willing to admit: 15 different franchises have won the World Series since 2001, and that doesn’t include well-run, perennial competitors Tampa Bay and Milwaukee. The NFL, NBA, and NHL had fewer different champions over the same period.

The players also exaggerate some of their problems. Yes, young stars are underpaid for their value. But teams with lower payrolls need them to have a chance of winning, and teams with higher payrolls need them to make it easier for them to afford the expensive players. And some teams benefit from holding back in the open market; not every free agent contract works.

The most important obstacle for the future of the game is not the salary structure anyway, but the game on the field. The players and the owners need to find a way to make the product as fun as possible. With hard-throwing pitchers and high strikeout hitters continuing to get large contracts, this can be the biggest challenge of all.

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