The Collusion Conspiracy AKA The Rebuild

The Collusion Conspiracy AKA The Rebuild

Let me be the first to say that I am in no way a scholar on the issue nor do I have a full understanding of the perils and triumphs of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the MLBPA and the Owners. I wish that I did. I wish that it all made sense as I read through it and reread sentences over and over again to try and determine their meaning.

It’s hard. I’m not that smart. I’m not sure anyone is, and perhaps thats the point.

What I do know is that in the eyes of the common Baseball fan the owners are greedy and the players are slightly greedy but ultimately that’s fine UNLESS the players strike, then it’s not fine anymore.

I specifically wrote “common” fan for a reason. Please, all you bloggers and twitter stalwarts make sure you read the word “common”. I dare never call you “common”. Unless you were actually Common, and I don’t think he cares much about Baseball.

This offseason has been a tricky one and it’s caused a lot of debate amongst writers, fans, and my wife and Producer Travis on twitter. The lack of action on the part of owners to sign the current crop of free agents has been looked at as collusion.

The owners teaming up to keep the salaries of their players in check. There is no evidence of this collusion and to be honest keeping a secret this big in this day and age should be nearly impossible, but I put nothing past billionaires who want to keep secrets. If it is indeed collusion this wouldn’t be the first time the owners have executed it. In fact it’s happened often, and sometimes on a very minute scale – take Barry Bonds forced retirement.

So, if the owners are colluding to keep salaries low, is that such a bad thing? The players would say “yes”, until a strike happens fans would say “yes”, and for the most part people who believe in fairness would say “yes”.

So, why do I sit neutral?

Let’s dissect this a bit. Of course the players and especially their agents would fight against lower salaries. It only makes sense for them to fight. No worker would ever settle if they knew they could make more money, especially when they are responsible for providing the service that accumulates all the money. If team revenues go up, then they should be getting a piece of that new pie. The owners shouldn’t be hoarding it for purposes unclear. The owners didn’t technically earn it. The agents need salaries high to make more money, the players want salaries high because they feel they deserve it, and probably cause their agent keeps taking more money.

Here is where we have to take a step back and look at a couple issues. The average salary for a Major League Baseball player currently stands at $4.47 million. That’s a good amount of money. That’s actually a lot of money. More than most Americans will ever see in their lifetimes. And, it’s a lot for the average salary. In Baseball the average isn’t totally the same as the law of averages when figuring out equations. The average here is what agents will ask teams to pay their clients no matter their clients talent level or production; this will be considered the low-end for a mid-tier player and the high-end salary for a bottom-tier player. Don’t believe me?

Rookie contracts aside, which are a whole different beast, your average position player makes a good chunk of change. Lonnie Chisenhall of the Cleveland Indians will make over $5 million this season, and he is not a very good baseball player. A guy we love and miss already, Yangervis Solarte will make just over $4 million this year, and over $5 million the next. Adam Warren, a very average relief pitcher for the Yankees will make $3.3 million this year and only appear in about half the games as Solarte will. And, these are just the mid to bottom-tier players. These are the guys you would be absolutely delighted to see have a good season because all in all they are ‘seat fillers’.

When we get to the higher mid-level guys salaries spike. Michael Brantley will make $11 million this year, Jedd Gyorko $9 million, and before getting bought out Andre Ethier made $17.5 million last year and appeared in only 22 games. Once we get to the top-tier all-star award-winning guys – forget it.

So, $4.47 million is what the low-level guys want to make, and almost all the mid-level guys already make (again, after their rookie contracts expire).

When I look at those numbers I think to myself, how could anyone be upset at that? How could a player be upset for making millions playing a game? On our last podcast Andy Keatts brought up the fair point that revenues continue to increase, however players salaries don’t. This is almost true, and to be fair Andy could’ve even pointed this out himself, but what am I gonna do – go back and listen? Pffffft. According to USA Today, 2017 was the 13th consecutive year players average salaries increased, although 2017 saw the smallest increase at 1.6%. Meanwhile, owners made their usual profits in 2017. So, why the slow increase in salaries when revenues continued to trend up?

Well, aside from owners just being greedy I can think of a few reasons for this:

1) Owners handing out lots of bad contracts over the last decade. On the pod we talked about Chris Davis’ clunker of a deal, but there are many more. Take James Shields 4-year $75 million contract that lasted one season in San Diego, and that the Padres are still paying off. The Red Sox paid 30-year old David Price $217 million for seven years. The Angels are paying Albert Pujols around $30 million a year until he’s 41, and just finished paying off their awful Josh Hamilton contract last year. These are just a few examples of hundreds of deals over the last decade that didn’t work out, and left teams to try and pick up the pieces. And, then there’s that…

2) Dead money. Yes, this one is solely on the owners. If you’re James Shields or Melvin Upton, you’re gonna take as much money as you possibly can, right? I would! Of course they didn’t exactly know they wouldn’t be worth it. I’m sure they hoped they would be because if they were that performance would surely begat another large contract. However, if they sucked, they still got their money and the teams had to eat it. This is the owners fault, and they have to literally pay for it. And this dead money can make things look deceiving. Before 2017 the Padres opening day payroll was almost the exact same for players on the team as it was for players not on the team. That’s an extra $30 million going to people who don’t even play for you! For the Dodgers they were paying $70 million in dead money! That’s insane. And stupid. And, maybe, just maybe the owners are trying to learn from their mistakes.

3) This crop of free agents aren’t very good. Sure Yu Darvish is good, and JD Martinez will most likely contribute somewhere. Eric Hosmer will be a useful first baseman for somebody, but these aren’t superstars. Darvish certainly was at one point, but is on the tale end of a brilliant career hoping to win a ring before it’s all said and done. But, Jake Arrieta, Mat Adams, Jose Bautista aren’t gonna cause riots in the streets. The class just isn’t that strong, and you can’t blame owners for not overpaying for underwhelming or aging talent.

All these things put together read more like payroll adjustments than nefarious collusion.

Over the last decade “rebuilding” has become the newest and latest craze. The Cubs, Royals, Pirates, and of course Astros have all dedicated their systems to this rebuilding process, and it paid off for all of them. Yes, even the Pirates to some degree. Because of that more teams are following suit, hoping it will bring home a championship. But, what is rebuilding? From the fans perspective It’s drafting and acquiring good young talent, developing them, bringing them to the big leagues, surrounding them with a few role players or crafty veterans, and winning championships. From an owners perspective a rebuild is trying to win the cheapest and most cost effective way possible. Exploiting rookie contracts (a true beast of a topic), and riding affordable draft contracts as long as humanly possible. This instead of the Yankees/Red Sox philosophy of the early 2000’s, which was buy all the free agents no matter the cost, which most franchises couldn’t keep up with.

Fan bases love the rebuild because it feels like the old days. You get to grow with players, have your franchise “guys”, until those cheap contracts expire and they go sign with the Yankees or Red Sox. Owners love it because if everything breaks right they have a cheap competitive team for three to five years. As this rebuilding philosophy continues to pay off, how could anyone blame the owners for being gun shy on ridiculous contracts? Why would any owner break the bank to sign Eric Hosmer or JD Martinez when in theory they have the “next version” of those guys sitting in their farm system?

Take the recent signing of Yu Darvish. The Cubs, who because of their own rebuild don’t have the next Darvish in their farm system, decided to open the pocket book and sign the hard-throwing 31-year old to a six-year $126 million contract. This contract is basically the poster child for what is happening right now: owners bending on length for a break on dollars. This has been a weird theme in recent years where length of contract is a huge deal, and something that owners have reluctantly usually lost on. If they sign a player to a long-term $200 million contract, moving that player at any point will be hard, and if that player underperforms (which often happens) then you’re stuck paying a premium for a burnout. Owners don’t want to be stuck in that position anymore. Not only for their pocketbooks, but for the long term success of the team and joy of it’s fanbase. I mean, is that cool to say as a Texas Ranger fan that you got to watch A-Rod play as his deal slowly ruined your franchise for the next five years? I don’t know, It might be? But, owners won’t see it that way probably ever again.

Darvish, in previous years, could’ve landed at minimum $150 million for probably around five-years, and probably a lot more. But, now owners are watching the extended payroll more than ever. They don’t want be stuck in five years after paying $500 million for two superstars with no supporting cast. They’ll give a top-tier (sure, I could see your arguments for high-level mid-tier) pitcher like Darvish a longer contract for a little less money than normal in a move to make his contract more favorable to suitors in the future, and leave some wiggle room for more pieces down the line. It’s more strategic than just throwing money around, and strategy takes time to…strategize. After all, if you believe in “Moneyball” then you can’t get angry at owners for embracing their own version of it.

Owners are taking their time, and in a way I guess you could call that collusion. However, I would argue that buying into the “rebuild”, past regimes throwing money away, and trying to plan for longterm success are more to blame than anything.

And, of course greed. I mean, I’m not an idiot. But, that’s the whole point. If owners can convince you that “rebuilding” is better than wasting money on JD Martinez then their strategy is paying off and we’re also to blame. It’s like sending jobs overseas. If corporations can save a buck and remain competitive, or at least appear to, then they’re going to, and we keep buying their products (sent from iPhone X). Why would Baseball teams operate differently?

Is it fair? Nope. Do I understand why they do it? Yup. Do I understand why a player would be mad to see crazy revenues without fair compensation? Yup. Is six-years $140 million fair compensation for Eric Hosmer? More than.

Blame the owners. Blame the agents. Blame the players. We also need to blame ourselves.

For more expert sports stuff, and things you probably won’t care about, follow me on Twitter @dallas_mc

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Dallas McLaughlin is a writer and performer for the Emmy-winning Yo! Gabba Gabba! and The Aquabats! Super Show! He's also worked as a consultant for Disney Television Animation, Nickelodeon, and Fox Sports. A diehard San Diego sports fan, Dallas has written passionately against the DH and in favor of Padre Brown for, The Sports Minute, Fox Sports, Voice of San Diego, San Diego Magazine, and is one of the founding members of The Kept Faith. A professional standup comedian who's performed with Norm McDonald, Chris Hardwick, Dave Attell, Jeff Garlin, and many more. He recently won San Diego's Funniest Person Contest, and has been featured on FoxRox, Tonight in San Diego, and was a DJ on FM94/9 for over seven years. Dallas has spent over two decades on stage as an actor, award-winning playwright and director. In his spare time, Dallas likes to eat burritos, drink beer, and talk to his wife about her dislike for Harry Connick, Jr.

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