John Harper, SNY.tv | Twitter |
On a day when 21-year old Ronald Acuna Jr. became the youngest player ever to sign a $100 million contract, as major league teams continue doling out piles of money in unprecedented fashion, a veteran of baseball's labor wars nevertheless saw the trend as a triumph for the owners.
Ex-Met and Yankee David Cone, in fact, pointedly recalled a speech that Curt Flood -- the pioneer of free agency -- gave to a subsequent generation of players in the 1990s that ultimately would go on strike in 1994, forcing the cancelation of the World Series that year.
"Curt told us back then, 'don't let them put the genie back in the bottle,'" Cone recalled at Yankee Stadium on Tuesday. "That was his quote. And I have to say, they're getting it back in a little bit. She's got a couple of legs back in the bottle."
On the surface that may sound silly to most baseball fans, who see more young players becoming rich beyond their wildest dreams than ever before in the sport.
And indeed, that's largely the view as well from the other side of the aisle, if you will. Ask executives and even former executives about this explosion of contract extensions around the game this spring, and the standard answer comes back in the form of a question as well.
As in: what's not to like?
"I think it's great for the game," says Dan O'Dowd, MLB Network analyst and former Rockies GM. "What I think some people may be losing perspective about is that we're talking about life-changing money for these players."
There's no disputing that, whether it's $100 million for Acuna, $120 million for Xander Bogaerts, $52 million for Randal Grichuk, or $48 million for German Marquez, to name only the deals done all in the last couple of days.
However, player advocates point out that in most cases the players are potentially leaving a lot more money on the table, and the why of it all raises obvious questions about the future of free agency, and more to the point, the potential in 2021 for the first real ugliness at the bargaining table since that infamous strike in 1994.
Indeed, then: why now for all these extensions?
The consensus among several baseball people contacted for this story comes down to this: it's the fallout from the last two winters of free agency, as analytics have de-valued older players and dictated more measured, emotionless evaluations by teams, resulting in fewer long-term deals and many a veteran player left without a job.
"Players and even agents are looking down the road and seeing the money might not be there like it once was, especially for players in their 30s," one current team executive said. "Teams are taking advantage of that. You'd be stupid not to. It's big money in some cases but it's team-friendly compared to what players have gotten by holding out for free agency in the past."
Ok, let's get to the issues, starting with the biggest beef from the players' side:
Even if analytics have led GMs to make smarter choices than in the past and avoid the huge, long-term deals that have rarely worked out for teams, player advocates point to what they see as the ever-increasing gap between revenues in a flourishing sport and the luxury-tax threshold that has become something of a soft salary cap.
One person close to the situation estimates that revenues have increased over the last several years by about 80 percent at the same time the luxury-tax threshold has increased by only about 30 percent.
"The result is teams aren't spending on players at nearly the rate revenues have increased," the person said. "And there's no salary floor to force lower-end teams to spend, but the power teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, and Cubs have used the threshold as a reason to re-set their tax rates, and when you take them out of the market, you don't have much of a free agency."
It's not as if those power teams haven't spent at all in recent years, but the point is legitimate, in terms of spending not keeping up with revenues.
That gap, combined with the de-valuing of older players, has essentially changed the nature of baseball's economic structure: that is, for many players it's no longer worth it for to wait six years, while making close to minimum salary for three years before reaching arbitration, to reach what was once the promised land of free agency.
Which is what Cone, who was a very issue-engaged player rep in '94, was referring to in saying the genie is at least somewhat back in the bottle. Like many others, he says the players have themselves to blame for being bullied at the bargaining table, especially in the last collective bargaining agreement -- when they prioritized quality-of-life issues like personal chefs in each clubhouse over the core economic issues.
"Now they've come to realize that one thing leads to another for players," Cone said. "It's not just about the top end. The lower end affects the middle class. So if minimum wages are too low, and the threshold is too low on the luxury tax, essentially you have a luxury tax that acts like something very close to a hard cap. With no floor.
"Nobody wants another strike. The game's healthy, and it's always much better if you can bargain in good faith. But with analytics and big-time data in the owners' hands, there are adjustments that should legitimately be made. After six years in the majors, a lot of these players are past 30. They've worked hard to attain free agency, and now the data is against them. The system is skewed against them. Just because young players are getting extensions, is not really equitable because the owners have all the leverage in that situation.
"The way for players to fight it is to make it about regaining their rights. It's not complaining about money, it's about freedom. People are losing their jobs because of a system that needs to be adjusted, out of fairness. Teams don't want to pay older players, yet young players have no rights for three years. Aaron Judge making $650,000, when he's worth millions in surplus value to the Yankees, affects someone like Adam Jones not being able to find a job or get what he should in the open market."
The obvious solution on the players' side is to fight for higher minimums in the pre-arbitration years, as well as lowering the free-agency requirement to, say, four years, so more players reach the market while still in their prime.
But what would it take for owners to agree to dramatic changes?
That depends who you ask. People on both sides of the issue agree the sport is very healthy financially, with those aforementioned revenues rising, to the point where a seemingly dead-end franchise like the Miami Marlins sold for $1.2 billion last year.
Not surprisingly, those with a management point of view are more optimistic than those on the players' side.
Gregg Clifton has a unique perspective as a former agent for players such as Tom Glavine and David Wells who now handles arbitration cases for teams as part of a law firm in Arizona. And while he admits to the potential for difficult negotiations ahead between players and owners, he believes both sides have too much to lose to ever reach the point of another work stoppage.
"At a certain point both sides recognize it's not good for the sport if one side has too much of an advantage," Clifton said. "I think it's a good sign that you're seeing the Players Association being willing to open up on (pace-of-play) changes, and communicate with MLB, and I think you'll see both sides work toward some type of compromise on the key issues."
In other words, perhaps even the owners know there's a point where beating up on the players in bargaining in recent years reaches a point of diminishing returns.
Meanwhile, O'Dowd agrees that, even 25 years later, the memory of the '94 strike will act as a deterrent toward another work stoppage because "everybody who lived through it knows it's too much to lose, especially when the game is flourishing as it is. I think you have smart people on both sides, and as long as they're communicating, something good will come out of that."
All of that sounds logical, yet the history between the sides, even after two decades of labor peace, suggests that it would take the threat of a strike to get owners to agree to significant changes in the system.
Cone is hopeful that a "sense of fairness" will prevail, but he also believes that players will be much more ready to fight at the next negotiations.
Exactly how far they'd be willing to carry that fight remains to be seen, depending whether the same financial trends in baseball continue over the next couple of years.
But one thing seems sure: free agency may never look quite the same if the players can't force that genie out of the bottle again.