Sports News Without Access, Favor, Or Discretion

Trevor Bauer's Idea For Universal Free Agency Isn't That Novel, But It Also Wouldn't Work

Photo: David Maxwell (Getty Images)

Thursday was a good day for loose cannons. David Stern declared that the NFL suspending Colin Kaepernick for fomenting mass genuflecting would have hastened his return to active football (which actually makes sense if you forget the fact that the NFL owners were in we’re-afraid-Donald-Trump-will-be-mean-to-us-even-though-our-amassed-weath-is-about-300-times-his mode), and Trevor Bauer mused that baseball players should be free-range.

The first argument was laughed at, largely because it is about history that can longer be changed. Kaepernick has now been out of football for two years and just settled his case against the league, and any alleged ossification of his skills can be used as the prevailing reason why no team will touch him, now or ever.

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The second one, though, might actually appeal to people, because Bauer has given it some thought. Probably not enough, as it turns out, but let’s hear him out (all quotes come from Bauer’s interview with Bob Nightengale in USA Today).

“I’ll go year-to-year my entire career,” he said. “Why would you lock yourself in a situation that may not make you happy? I think that’s highly inefficient. Everybody is afraid of risk. Everyone is scared. It’s still unproven how clubs feel about it, but looking at the market, and studying it, I identified for myself personally that it’s the best route to go forward.”

And...

“I think it solves a lot of problems in this day and age, which is (teams’) increased reliance on aging curves and projection of future performance. Baseball used to pay for what you’ve done, and baseball is now shifting to projecting that they’re going to do. It’s very similar to how major corporations are being run. I think that players have to find a way in that environment to still maximize their value.”

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And...

“How much would Bryce Harper be worth on a one-year deal? Or Dallas Keuchel. How much would Max Scherzer be worth last year to the Brewers who were one game away from the World Series and needed an ace. If players are willing to take more risk and shorter term, they can really drive the value up. I can’t imagine a team wouldn’t pay $40 million for a year for Harper, Machado or Scherzer.”

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Actually, all this has been suggested before, long, long ago, by the crustiest barnacle in the sea log of owners’ meetings, Charles O. Finley—who owned, raised up, destroyed, resuscitated, and again destroyed the Kansas City and Oakland Athletics. He was spectacularly cheap, devastatingly mean-spirited, galactically unpleasant, and in many ways the perfect owner for pre-union sports.

As his glory teams of the early 1970s sought their freedom from his scaly hand, Finley pushed Bauer’s idea of universal free agency, an idea then-union president and smartest boy in the room Marvin Miller immediately saw for what it was—a way to drive down everyone’s salaries by flooding the market every year. Miller even said in his memoirs that the notion that the other owners might have seen this as a good idea scared him to death. But because it was Finley’s idea (remember, he was regarded as universally despicable, and the owners live in the universe just like you and I), it died like a toad in a drought.

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So Bauer’s idea resides firmly on the wrong side of history, and if it is the future, the players will find out just what the law of unintended consequences really means. This is not to slog Bauer; that happens often enough, including in this squalid corner of the internet, and you are all entitled to think of him what you will. We are only dealing with his free-agency-for-all idea, and having an idea shouldn’t be punished. Thinking is generally good, even if the original thought is kind of daft.

First, Bauer is totally entitled to go year-to-year his entire career because it’s his career. More power to ya’, Trev. May all your remaining arbitrations leave the Cleveland Indians in a fetal ball of impotent, sobbing rage.

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But his next idea is where things go off the rails. As Patty Donahue and The Waitresses told us in the grand old Anglican hymn “Square Pegs,” “One size does not fit all.” Baseball is paying low prices for a player’s best years (see the San Francisco Giants of the early decade), and then far more often than not aren’t paying for the years that happen later, so the owners win on both ends.

Besides, not every long-term deal is forced by the player. Arte Moreno wanted Albert Pujols in Anaheim for 10 years because he wanted to use Pujols as the spark for his team becoming more of a player in Southern Californian hearts and minds. Everyone (and I mean all six billion people on Earth) said 10 years was an insane number, but Moreno wanted 10, and by damn, he got it. He also dug deep for Mike Trout later, which has been a great contract no matter what Rob Manfred says about him being unfit to host a Netflix series, and when his deal expires in 2020, they will want another long-term go with him.

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Bauer referenced other big names, none of whom are ever going to get $40 million-a-year deals because the owners have decided enough of that, and will be willing to go to the mattresses to prevent that from happening. The plunging markets for Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, which died short of $30 million per, are evidence that this trend is already up and walking. I suspect the real damage to his argument is that the owners won’t see Max Scherzer for one game in the World Series as the be-all and end-all of life experience. They’ll try to figure a way to find someone sort of good to do slightly less Scherzer-y and hope they can get a timely hit from other slightly-below-market players. That’s how corporate America really works—you get golden parachutes if you’re in a big office, not a big clubhouse or a big newsroom or a big trading floor or a big warehouse. Money goes up in this economy, and the people who own ball teams own all those other companies.

Maybe the worse thing, though, for his fellow players is the argument Bauer seems to be making that the best players will get the lion’s share of a shrinking pot while all the others wade against the tide of a flooded market. That’s the new camaraderie of the clubhouse—“I got mine.” The gains of the union in Miller’s time, and later in Don Fehr’s, were made by appealing successfully to the players’ sense of solidarity, not their separateness. The tactic of splitting the have-lots and have-nots is why the NFL Players Association is so much less toothy.

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In short, Bauer is making a management argument in a libertarian’s words, assuming that owners want to win more than they want to rake in cash. Winning is a by-product that helps produce cash, not the other way around. Bauer’s is an honest argument fairly put, but having just experienced how much teams respect talent in the arbitration process, which he described as “character assassination,” he just got a taste of how far management will go to save $2 million, let alone tens or hundreds of millions. They like winning fine, but paying Max Scherzer $20 million, or better still, $5 million, doesn’t dismiss Scherzer’s talent. It only values it 50 or 87 percent less than Bauer thinks it does. I don’t want to cast aspersions here, but Bauer seems like someone who will find himself radicalized too late when the market, and the people who define it, regard him as less valuable.

But, fair-minded hyenas that we are, we’ll let him finish.

“Obviously, something has to change at the collective bargaining table. As the players get younger and younger, and the teams value younger players, the players’ best years are when they’re being paid the least. I think something in the system needs to change how quick players get to free agency. And something needs to change how cheap teams can acquire amateur talent.”

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Sounds like someone who’s put some thought into this, if largely toward the ends of the few players whom he thinks would benefit from a new system rather than the many who wouldn’t. But if he has read up on Charlie Finley (or hasn’t and chooses to do so), he’s probably clever enough to say to himself, “If I’m making the same point this guy did, maybe I need a new point.”


Ray Ratto is the unacknowledged mastermind behind Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League championship season.

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