Does MLB Care If No One Cares?

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“The Rays have the right under the collective bargaining agreement to renew me at or near the league-minimum salary,” defending American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell said in a statement issued on the day the Rays re-upped his contract with a $15,500 raise. Some $10,000 of that raise was mandated by the league, but the Rays did waive a $5,000 penalty customarily imposed on players whose contracts are renewed; it wasn’t specified, but it seems fair to presume that the Rays made that gesture out of gratitude for Snell winning 21 games, leading the American League in ERA, and being worth 7.5 wins above replacement. Probably it was some combination of those things.

“They also have the ability to more adequately compensate me,” Snell’s statement continued, “as other organizations have done with players who have similar achievements to mine. The Rays chose the former.” Snell’s statement concluded by noting that he’s excited to compete alongside his teammates next year, although beating the stuffing out of his team when he’s finally eligible for arbitration is clearly a motivation as well. As John Romano notes in the Tampa Bay Times, a $100,000 bonus would have represented just two-tenths of one percent of the team’s MLB-low payroll.


To a certain extent, all of that is boilerplate—swap in the name of another pre-arbitration player and the story would be about the same, swap any team in for the Rays and that team would likely be just about as cheap, although the Rays have historically found a way to wriggle under even that low bar. It’s boilerplate because all of it, the intention and the act, represents the absolute minimum standard enshrined in the league’s collective bargaining agreement. The Rays do not have to do any more than this, and so they haven’t.

This offseason, like the one before, has been defined by the teams that have traditionally done more than the Rays in this area—that is, every other MLB team—making the same choice. It’s all allowed. There’s nothing in the rules that says teams have to try to win games, or even improve in the near-term; every team could have signed Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, just as every team could now sign Dallas Keuchel or Craig Kimbrel. There’s no reason why this would or should even need to be in the rules. The basic good faith assumption underlying baseball’s economy is that teams will try to win, whether because fielding a team that fans want to watch tends to be a good financial decision or just because it’s more fun to win than lose. When that’s no longer a priority, a number of other significant things slip out of joint as a result.


And that is where we are, now. Few teams even bid on Machado and Harper, and no team has signed Keuchel or Kimbrel. Several young stars have signed big-ticket extensions this offseason, with Mike Trout and Alex Bregman and Nolan Arenado re-upping for nine-figure deals; the players’ circumstances are individuated, but their decisions clearly stem from the realization that free agency is just not working the way it’s supposed to work. When prospects like Eloy Jimenez or Brandon Lowe sign team-friendly deals covering their arbitration years, it’s because they know the alternative is service-time manipulation, minor league exile, and the Blake Snell Treatment. Snell will have to eat a few miles of garbage before he gets a salary more commensurate to the value he creates, with free agency as the ostensible reward at the end of all that. Recently, it hasn’t been that. Instead, it’s a waiting room in which even future hall of famers in their prime sit waiting for some team—any team, literally the fucking Padres if it comes to that—to call their name.

This is the marketplace that Major League Baseball has made, and while that market was never quite free—no market truly is—it was not intended to be this perverse. The idea was that every team could bid for the best players available, and that give or take some light collusion the market would set itself. It was not part of the original consideration that teams would not bid on or not even want the best players, let alone that such a scenario might someday, somehow, become the norm. But that is unmistakably where we are and the league-wide decision to stick to doing the absolute minimum is a much bigger problem than the league seems to appreciate. That’s not just because of how it will impact the league’s next CBA negotiation, although there is that. It’s also because of how it will impact this season.


Way too early this morning, two Major League Baseball teams played a real, actual game that counted in the standings. Most of the U.S. slept through it; the fans of two-thirds of MLB teams couldn’t be blamed if they opted to keep sleeping until the fall. If and when trouble comes, when it’s time to renegotiate that collective bargaining agreement or before, it will be because of the owners’ unwillingness or inability or refusal to recognize just how reckless they are being with the game.


Baseball’s most powerful people talk a lot about Growing The Game, which is a laudable enough goal even if you read it as a slightly more grandiose way of saying Make More Money. “We have a great, safe game, it teaches great values to kids,” Rob Manfred told MLB Network’s Intentional Talk at the All-Star Game in 2017. He seemed pleased to note that youth participation in the game had gone up the previous year. “And it’s important that we continue to fill that pipeline.” This is no less true for the fact that it’s Rob Manfred saying it, but growing the game is not just a matter of funding a worthy initiative here and there. Baseball is growing, at least in the sense that the league is richer than it has ever been, but that’s not the same thing as saying that it’s strong, or even healthy.

Nothing sells baseball—pardon, grows baseball—better than competitive Major League Baseball teams, and the league Manfred oversees is strikingly short on those at the moment. Not just in the sense that there are a limited number of good teams, which is always true, but more saliently and worryingly in the sense that only a handful of teams really seem to be trying to do what teams are supposed to do—win games, make the playoffs, go to the World Series and win it if they catch some breaks and the ducksnorts land right. Manfred has spent much of this offseason, in defiance of significant evidence to the contrary, making the argument that every MLB team wants to win. If he’s right, it’s only in the least meaningful and restrictive sense; it doesn’t matter what teams want or don’t want if they leave it at the wanting. Wanting is the easy part, and cheap.


Players like Blake Snell, who have not been in the league long enough to benefit from the concessions players have wrung from owners over decades, feel the effects of this most clearly. So too do players like Keuchel and Kimbrel, forced to choose between sitting out a year of their primes or attempting to rebuild their value (and risking injury) on make-good deals after abbreviated spring trainings. There is no reason that any of this needs to be happening. It’s all the result of a choice that, accidentally or on purpose, every Major League team seems to have made the same way. The effects of this can already be seen across the league, which is increasingly stratified and lopsided. Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projections have the American League Central race being decided by 15 games, the AL West by 18, and the NL West by nine. Other divisions look closer—close enough, certainly, that the one- or two- or three-win improvements that Keuchel or Kimbrel represent over the players working in their place could easily make the crucial difference.

A league in which every team seems more committed to various abstractions than to the simple goal of winning as many games as possible, whether those decisions are dictated by proprietary algorithms or the most ancient species of executive-class fuckery, is not healthy. If baseball is going to grow in ways that go beyond revenue (or survive the inevitable bursting of the bubble in TV contracts) it will need people to care about it—the people that already do, and others on top of that. Everyone involved with the game recognizes this obvious fact enough to at least pay lip service to it. Look across the league at the start of a new season, though, and it is much easier to see a collection of teams—not just a few outliers, but a broad plurality—less concerned with the work of earning that growth than figuring out what they can get away with.