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INFIELD CHATTER: Fans forced to follow the money

Scott Holland
Scott Holland

The hot stove isn’t hot. Or warm. In fact, the guys who run the rumor websites might want to consider calling an appliance repair outfit, because spring training is about five weeks away and there’s a whole lot of talented players still looking for work.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield on Monday tried to explain why so many quality free agents remain unsigned. His first theory was the group of players is less talented than the preceding two free agent classes, all of which pale at this juncture to those expected to be available next winter. He also put blame on super agent Scott Boras, known for keeping his clients unsigned as long as possible, and suggesting that’s the reason Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez, Eric Hosmer, Carlos Gomez and Mike Moustakas aren’t committed.

Also on his list is the new collective bargaining agreement, which Schoenfield argues acts like a de facto salary cap, and especially affecting usual high payroll teams like the Dodgers and Yankees, who might be trying to stay under the threshold this season. There’s other theories, too, such as front offices getting smarter, tanking to acquire future roster assets, focusing more on trades than free agency and simply spending more on younger talent than older players.

Nowhere in the piece does Schoenfield use the word collusion, although it's been floated in various commentary circles. Though he might not have intended to do so, Schoenfield essentially offered a defense against the allegation owners might be conspiring to tamp down on the high end of player salaries. With all the plausible explanations, it’s fairly easy for owners to maintain this winter is just the free market at work.

Conversely, Major League Baseball doesn’t have a great track record here, including Commissioner Peter Ueberroth outright telling owners and general managers in 1984 to avoid long-term contracts, ultimately leading to players collecting $280 million in a 1990 settlement. Historians note anti-collusion language has been included in every collective bargaining agreement since the first in 1968 — and that it was put there primarily as a response to Dodgers stars Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale negotiating jointly. The owners wanted the players to negotiate individually, and union boss Marvin Miller insisted the owners agree to the same restraint.

As someone who generally supports labor over management, I’m all in favor of players getting as much money as they can. As someone who is a fan of a team with World Series hopes, I don’t want ownership to hand out excessive contracts to players unlikely to perform well enough to meet the attendant expectations.

That said, whether or not Arrieta gets the $200 million he reportedly desires, baseball still is going to have serious issues with pay imbalances. Outside of signing bonuses for a few elite prospects, minor league players are dramatically underpaid relative to their value as franchise assets. There continue to be shady dealings with teenagers from countries whose players aren’t subject to the amateur draft. And hundreds of retired players are being inexplicably excluded from pension and health insurance benefits, all at a time when the game generates staggering revenues.

And though it should go without saying in pieces like this, all these thoughts are offered in the context that the money any of us spends following professional sports could and should also be put to use feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and healing the sick. None of these athletes need thousands or millions, but the owners don’t need millions or billions either.

But here we are anyway.

No one asked me if I think the owners are colluding to repress top-end salaries. If forced to choose, I’d say no, or at least I’d say that wouldn’t be proven, if only because most front offices these days seem to be smart enough to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors. But the union definitely isn’t being helped by the terms of the current CBA, along with a general shift in understanding about when players reach their prime years.

I’d much rather focus on what happens inside the foul lines, but it’s impossible to follow baseball without following the money. Here’s hoping we get to spring training without lingering concerns about potential labor strife.

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