Whatever happens to MLB in the offseason is seemingly going to hinge on just how much the players’ association wants to dig their heels in, how much they can, and what’s important to them. They were undone last time around by things like traveling requirements and hotel suites, which is how they got a defacto salary cap and manipulated service time for players who weren’t in the union yet.
As we find out more about the proposal the owners sent the players recently, the more it smells and has horse flies circling around it. The first aspect we found out about was the owners “ever so graciously” putting in a salary floor to counter their luxury tax. Except the floor was far too low at $100 million to make teams actually put competitive teams out there, and they also used it as an excuse to lower the luxury tax threshold so much that it would more than cancel out whatever gains the players got through the floor. A floor may be necessary, but it’s going to have to be way higher than $100 million.
More details have come out, thanks to the New York Post’s Joel Sherman, and they aren’t any better. The first one is that the proposal did away with a service-time requirement to get to free agency. Instead, it was just a proposed age threshold of 29.5. But that’s garbage for a few reasons. The big one is that we know front offices these days look at age 30 as when they expect players to begin to decline. Teams are highly reluctant to pay players well into their 30s big-time money, not unless they get a couple of years in their 20s as well. It’s not the most ridiculous outlook, as most of the leading players today are under 30. If you’re going by WAR leaders at the moment, Marcus Semien, who is 30, is second, and then you have to go all the way down to J.T. Realmuto in 19th to find the next player on the list whose age starts with a “3” (according to FanGraphs).
So essentially, it would make the free-agent market almost entirely filled with players that teams would be hesitant to commit big dollars and a lot of years too. This is why Bryce Harper or Manny Machado or Mookie Betts (before an extension) or Francisco Lindor (before an extension) were such prized free agents or possible free agents. They were the rare ones who still had years left before it’s thought they would decline.
What the players’ union has to aim for is getting that free agency age to a point where a lot of players in their prime will get to the market. 26? 27? Should be no higher than that, and if they were really spicy, their first proposal would make it 25, or even 24. Players get to the bigs now younger than they used to, and would do so even more often with the elimination of service time. You could see more players getting to the bigs at 20 or 21 (most of these guys who have been held down to manipulate their service time were probably ready long before they were held down in Triple-A for only financial reasons). Why should they have to wait around eight years?
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MLB also proposed doing away with arbitration and service time in that sense, too, but without details, it looks just as conniving as anything else. The proposal calls for a $1 billion pool that would fluctuate with revenues, for every team’s pre-free agency players, with strict rules as to what players could be paid at certain experience or performance levels. Maybe, we don’t know, it hasn’t been spelled out. Right now, arbitration-eligible players earned $650 million altogether, so this is seen as a boon to the players.
But is it? Without knowing any of the parameters we can’t be sure. If it is an evenly distributed pool, and we use that $1 billion figure, that’s $33 million or so for each team. Take the Dodgers for instance. This winter, they’ll have three arbitration-eligible players who matter — Trea Turner, Cody Bellinger, Julio Urias. They’re lucky in that Bellinger has had all of his limbs fall off this season, but what if he hadn’t? Turner made $13 million this year, a pittance for what he produces. Bellinger made $16 million. Those two right there would almost certainly eat up whatever allowance the Dodgers had for arb-eligible players. We haven’t even gotten to Urias yet. The only way to make it work is for Bellinger and Turner to get less in this proposed system than they do now.
Or let’s use the Brewers. They have 10 arb-eligible players heading into next year, including Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Josh Hader. They’re going to get screwed.
The owners’ proposal still aims to pay players the least when they produce the most, and hold salaries down when players finally achieve the ability to pick their workplaces. This is going to be a fight. Or it should be.