1994 MLB player's strike

MLB Analysis: Players and owners testiness spells trouble ahead

There’s more than meets the eye when the Players Association fired a shot across the bow by objecting to the Commissioner’s plans to speed up the pace of play. That discontent is real, and it is liable to lead to the potential for the first strike in baseball since 1994.

The MLB Players Association sent up a flare the other day when they publicly registered their objection to a rule change that would limit the number and length of visits to the mound, as well as instituting a 20-second pitch clock.  All of which comes in the name of bowing to the pressure coming from Rob Manfred to speed up the pace of play.

Knowing that Manfred can, and most likely will, execute these and other changes by himself, the fact that the players went ahead anyway signals there’s something else on their mind, and that “something else” has the potential to tear apart the game at its roots.

That rumbling is tied to the snail-like pace of free agent signings during this offseason, and more significantly the length of contracts being offered to players. It could just be the pendulum is swinging away from favoring the players, who benefited from teams freely giving away contracts to players like Robinson Cano, who will collect $24 million a year as part of a 10-year deal he signed with the Seattle Mariners until he turns 40 in 2023.

Or maybe it’s the $240 million the Angels signed up to pay for the services of Albert Pujols, who will be issued a check by the team for $30 million when he’s 41. And don’t even mention the name Jacoby Ellsbury to the Yankees.

Those days are gone, and it’s likely the players get that. Even the first tier free agents like Jake Arietta, J.D. Martinez, and Yu Darvish aren’t asking for ten years. But at the same time, super-agent Steve Boras will never let Arietta or Martinez go for three years either. Thus, the stalemate as each side waits to see who blinks first.

Hear the beat of the war drums

In baseball, the trickle-down theory of economics we all learned in high school works very efficiently, meaning those eight and ten-year deals of yesteryear filtered down to five-year deals for the middle free-agent tier of players. Conversely, if Arietta as an example, settles for a five-year contract, and all of a sudden players like Todd Frazier, Lorenzo Cain, or Alex Cobb are looking at two-year deals, we can bet the MLB Players Association is not going to stand by helplessly as it happens.

The players can publicly argue all day that is the owners who made their own bed, and while that may be true, it is not going to offset the fact the game is getting ever younger, and that is having a distinct effect on free agents bargaining at the age in their early thirties. The Yankees, for instance, might have seen a no-brainer in signing Todd Frazier for a couple of years two years ago. Now, however, they have two players in Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar making the major league minimum they can plug in and still not lose much in a lineup that includes Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Greg Bird.

Another influencing factor is the copy-cat mentality that exists in baseball where the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs went into a full-fledged rebuilding mode, suffered for it, but then emerged with World Championships as full payment for the loyalty of their fans. They drafted intelligently while avoiding the free-agent market, patiently waited, and now we see, for instance, the Astros going full bore in trading for Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander (last year) all because they (now) can.

The dilemma persists…why sign a player who is 31 or 32 to a multi-year contract when you have someone available who will cost you $450,000 and give you almost, or perhaps even better, production? And that introduces another aspect of the current scenario the players hate, even though they signed up for it in the last round of negotiations – and that’s the luxury tax.

When you have teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, and Cubs with dollars available that are yet to be printed doing back-flips to get under the $197 million payroll threshold, there’s something unique going on here. If anything, we should be saying it’s about time the Yankees as an example, realize the waste in having contributed almost a half-billion dollars ($451 million) to the coffers of their competition. But that was primarily the way of doing business for many teams for quite a while. No more.

Now, it’s the players who have made their own bed, and they are stuck with the current agreement until 2021. That doesn’t mean, however, that binding talks can’t be opened up with MLB owners sooner than that. Once the dust settles, and nearly all players are signed for whatever they can manage to get, the players will be pushing for a re-opening of negotiations to swing the pendulum somewhere toward the middle.

A prime target of the players is likely to be the luxury tax rules, which they see (and they are correct) as encouraging teams to spend far less on player’s salaries than they can afford. In this regard, the players will put forth a plan to require all MLB teams to have a minimum payroll of (my number) $100 million each year, preventing teams like the rebuilding Astros and other teams (notice the Cleveland Indians) from spending only the following in 2015.

Here’s the issue spelled out simply on MLB Tonight:

While not a crash and burn situation now, the formula for peace on both sides is in jeopardy. Many of us will soon be transformed into fans welcoming the crack of the bat as teams assemble for Spring Training and the upcoming season. All well and good, but we should be mindful of the tremors beneath the surface that could be signaling the beginning of a period of discord between the players and team owners, which if unattended to now will rear their ugly head when the current player’s contract expires.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that’s the way it is.

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