photo: Rob Manfred, KC mayor Sly James, Tony Clark (Denny Medley/USA TODAY Sports)
At the mid-season break, this spring’s rumblings from disgruntled Major League Baseball players were back in the news, but nothing has really changed.
During spring training, players as deeply respected as 14-year MLB veteran Adam Wainwright and as young as second-year pitcher Jack Flaherty of the St. Louis Cardinals were among those who first spoke out with their concerns. At the All-Star Game, many other players continued.
Major Leaguers are as mad as hell over how they are being treated by owners and aren’t going to take it anymore. In February, a strike had been threatened – and soon.
OK, that isn’t what anyone said verbatim. That was a paraphrase of a monologue by the late Peter Finch as Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network, but it does reflect the genuine anger being expressed by players about a spectrum of matters related to pay – from the slow free agent market for veterans to service time manipulation and artificially slow growth of contracts of younger players.
Less-experienced players are becoming more and more important in today’s game. As teams evolve their player valuation models to recognize earlier contributions, some veterans are left behind – or at least have to lower their once-lofty contract expectations.
A bank run
Against this backdrop, a curious phenomenon occurred this spring. An unprecedented string of multi-year extensions signed by young MLB players evoked reminders of a bank run just before a financial collapse. Players were taking their money out as quickly as they could, apparently because of a lack of confidence in the system.
Since last winter, teams guaranteed players over $4 billion in new contracts. In the final week of spring training alone, teams doled out more than $1 billion to 10 players via contract extensions, including the game’s best player, Mike Trout, and Paul Goldschmidt, who signed a five-year deal before ever playing his first official game with his new club. Just one of the pre-free agent examples is Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, who secured a record $26 million as a fifth-year player.
In the midst of this stampede, anxious owners doled out deals for lesser veterans, as well, that just a few months later look ill-advised, such as the Cardinals’ extensions with over-30 players Matt Carpenter and Miles Mikolas.
Even with all this action, the ground is far from level across MLB. Just three teams carry a player payroll of over $200 million while eight teams are under $100 million, a reminder that the problems run deeper.
Back to Wainwright. Here is his exact quote, from February 15.
“Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike, 100%,” Wainwright told St. Louis’ InsideSTL.com. “I’m just worried people are going to walk-out mid-season.”
That led to direct rebuttals from his team’s owner as well as MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred. As one would expect, Players’ Association head Tony Clark fired right back, claiming free agency was “under a two-year attack” – while his rank and file were avoiding the future open market by the dozens.
So, at mid-season, where are we?
Not much had been written on the matter once marquee free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado finally received their 10-year-plus, over $300 million contracts in March. (Neither of these so-called “generational talents” were among the 2019 MLB All-Stars, but that is a different story for a different day.)
Though neither Harper nor Machado were in Cleveland, 78 other players were recognized as regular or replacement All-Stars. While there, USA TODAY’s Bob Nightengale decided to kick the hornet’s nest, and sure enough, many of the game’s best players are still buzzing. In fact, they may be louder than ever.
Though no All-Star quoted threatened a strike as specifically and as soon as did Wainwright five months earlier, several mentioned the possibility if progress is not made.
“As players, we don’t want a stoppage,” Boston designated hitter J.D. Martinez said. “And I’m sure the owners don’t want one either. But some things are going to have to get negotiated.”
Many fail to remember that at the height of the spring round of rhetoric, Clark attempted to diffuse the imminent strike talk, saying that while he understood Wainwright’s perspective, MLB players will honor the current labor agreement.
Neither Clark nor Manfred were quoted in the new Nightengale article.
In mid-March, both sides pledged to start working on these economic matters, almost three years ahead of the December 2021 expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between players and owners.
The long-awaited MLB/MLBPA deal is done, sources tell ESPN, and includes a single trade deadline, an All-Star Game Election Day, expanded rosters in 2020 and, most important, a pledge to start bargaining over fundamental economic issues. News @ESPN: https://t.co/b7yvvVdxMd
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) March 14, 2019
In closing, Nightengale did note that “Executive director Tony Clark has had one preliminary meeting with Commissioner Rob Manfred, and they plan to meet formally again this summer.”
So, what is really new at mid-season 2019? As far as I can tell, absolutely nothing.
With 2 ½ years remaining, we are going to have to deal with more and more “negotiating” through the media until the day finally comes that a new agreement is struck.
It cannot come a day too soon for my already-weary eyes and ears.
For those interested in further discussion and a number of links to related 2019 articles on this subject, check out the long-running “MLB labor unrest” thread at The Cardinal Nation’s free forum.
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