Rob Manfred was named as the tenth commissioner of Major League Baseball in January 2015 as he replaced the retiring Bud Selig. Manfred appeared to be the right guy to keep MLB’s money machine going as the sport was able to rebuild following the work stoppage of 1994 as well as surviving the steroid era. MLB is still popular with current stars such as Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, New York Yankees outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, and Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper leading the charge. The past few years have been good for MLB as in 2015, the Kansas City Royals won their first World Series Championship in 30 years, while 2016 saw the Chicago Cubs win their first title since 1908. And we cannot overlook last year’s Fall Classic where the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers battled tooth and nail through seven games before the Astros were able to win their first World Series Title in franchise history. But as good as things have been for MLB in recent years, there are some storm clouds lurking that could do some damage.
Another work stoppage could be happening soon as there is a huge disconnect between the Major League Baseball Players Association and the various team owners. Spring training is in full gear around MLB and yet many marquee free agents remain unsigned. Of the 166 players who filed for free agency this past November, more than 90 remain unsigned. It has gotten to the point that the MLBPA has opened a training camp in Florida for all of the unsigned guys in the hope that they can maintain their skills sets while waiting to get signed.
We’ve seen a delay in player signings in recent years, but nothing like what is currently happening. The free agent market tends to pick up around Christmas, while everyone is playing Let’s Make A Deal on both sides come January. However this year it is more about owners and general managers around Major League Baseball attempting to call the bluff of players in the hope of getting them to sign less lucrative and shorter deals.
In 1996, Major League Baseball introduced the luxury tax as a way to penalize big market teams such as the Yankees for spending big bucks in free agency, while assisting the smaller market teams. At first teams such as the Yankees had no problem going over the luxury tax threshold as their former owner George Steinbrenner left no stone unturned in the pursuit of winning the World Series. But since Steinbrenner passed away in 2010, his sons Hank and Hal have run the team and they have not been fans of paying the luxury tax. The Yankees are not alone as other big market teams around MLB are shying away from going over the luxury tax as they are now being asked to cough up more money which was the result of changes to the collective bargaining agreement in 2016. And although that we’re talking about billionaires who are running these teams, they are not quick to part with millions of dollars to not only sign top-tier free agents, but to also subsidize the smaller market clubs.
A few years ago Major League Baseball also introduced draft slotting where teams who offered a player salary arbitration just prior to him becoming an unrestricted free agent could be in line to receive an additional first-round pick in the draft, while the team who signs the players would lose a pick. This practice along with the luxury tax have scared many teams off in free agency as organizations have focused more than ever on drafting and developing talent in their minor league systems.
What led to the work stoppage in 1994 is showing up once again as the players were tired of being controlled by the owners; the biggest difference now is that the veteran players are being priced out of the game.
In Major League Baseball’s current structure, most players don’t reach free agency for the first time until the age of 29, and in some cases 31 or even 32. At this point the prime of most players careers is in the rear-view mirror, and now teams are trying to force them to take less money which is not sitting well with the union or agents.
Scott Boras is the most polarizing agent that is currently involved with Major League Baseball. After Boras’ attempt to be an MLB player failed, he sought out to impact the game as a sports agent. Boras has been front and center for some of the biggest which included the game-changing 10-year, $252 million deal that he was able to get the Texas Rangers to agree to in November 2000 in order to obtain the services of Alex Rodriguez. Boras’ approach in regards to getting top dollar for his clients has led to some MLB team owners and general managers to not wanting to deal with him, but he is great in regards to leveraging himself.
Some of Major League Baseball’s biggest stars such as Harper, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant, and Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg are represented by Boras, and when they are eligible for free agency, he will undoubtedly seek top dollar for each of them as those same owners and general managers have no choice but to deal with him if they want to sign certain players. Boras has also been outspoken of what happened this off-season as he acknowledges the problem of owners now not wanting to spend money.
Outfielder J.D. Martinez and first baseman Eric Hosmer were two of the marquee free agents this winter. Both men are represented by Boras, and both remain unsigned which is very alarming as in year’s past they would have had a new contract by Christmas, and you have to wonder what it’s going to take for things to change.
Tony Clark is the current executive director of the MLBPA, and recently he has come under fire by his critics for not being aggressive enough to ensure that his players are getting signed. Clark has been the head of the MLBPA for more than four years, and this issue will define his legacy with the union.
The MLBPA is one of the strongest unions in the world as they were at the forefront of free agency, and with former executive directors Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr leading the way, the union never backed down from a fight with the owners.
Clark does not have the aggressive nature to lead the MLBPA as he comes across as being too chummy with Manfred which is not good for business. And what the MLBPA needs is someone with the mindset of Boras leading their union.
To some Boras comes across as pompous and greedy, but he gets the jobs as he is merely displaying the same nature that the people who he is negotiating with have.
According to Forbes Magazine, 2017 marked the 15th consecutive year that Major League Baseball saw record gross revenues. Since 2000, nearly half of the MLB franchises have begun playing in new stadiums, while most are basking in the glow of recently securing new regional television deals, as well as receiving money from national networks in FOX and ESPN who broadcast games as well. The MLB Network is a cash cow for the league, along with their merchandise deal with New Era as well as Under Armour who is set to be the official outfitter of MLB next year. Boras is seeing all of this money flying into the pockets of the owners, and rightfully he wants them to share it with the players.
Some might stop short of calling it collusion, but this is exactly what is going on with the owners as they are attempting to break the union. Owners will make the argument of not wanting to get stuck with bloated contracts for aging players such as Detroit Tigers designated hitter Miguel Cabrera and Angels designated hitter Albert Pujols, but you would be a fool to pass up the money if it was offered to you. However it was the owners and not the players who wanted the luxury tax implemented, and they are also the ones who are on board with stiffer penalties for teams that exceed the luxury tax threshold.
It also does not look good for the owners and Manfred that the Miami Marlins had another one of their infamous fire sales this winter. A group which included former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter agreed to purchase the Marlins from Jeffrey Loria for $1.2 billion last year.But instead of adding to the Marlins, this new ownership group has traded all of the team’s key players this off-season which included Stanton who was named as the National League’s MVP for 2017. Jeter has tried to smooth things over with the few fans that the Marlins have left in South Florida and he should be thankful that he was not tarred and feathered. Manfred was also pressed on the issue by ESPN’s Dan Le Batard, and the commissioner took offense as to why he should interfere with a team’s day-to-day operations. Jeter and the rest of his ownership had enough to purchase the Marlins, but now they could probably be spotted on the Florida Turnpike collecting cans, while they have all but killed baseball in South Florida, and Manfred apparently has no issue with it.
And all that this is leading to is a watered down version of the game as there are guys currently playing at the Major League level who are either not ready, or over the hill. Baseball remains popular, but Manfred and the owners whom he represents need to sit down for a history lesson as they obviously don’t remember what happened to their game in 1994. There are some that’ll label to players as being greedy, but the real blame needs to be placed on those who are signing, or in some cases not signing pay checks as what we are currently witnessing is not good for the fans as we’re a closer to a work stoppage in baseball than most people realize.