The stagnant free agent market and lack of offers for top free agents this offseason has been the source of much grumbling from players, agents and MLBPA. This morning, however, a gauntlet of sorts has been thrown day, in a lengthy post by Brodie Van Wagenen on Twitter.
Van Wagenen (who sounds like he may be one of those twins who was involved in Facebook early on but who is actually an agent who is co-head of CAA’s baseball division) lays out how the MLBPA largely continued with the status quo with the most recent CBA because it had been beneficial to both the players and to ownership, only to see teams refuse to spend this offseason. Van Wagenen says “[t]here is a rising tide among players for radical change . . . [a] fight is brewing”, and goes on to suggest that a boycott of spring training “may be a starting point.”
Van Wagenen is a prominent agent, and I’d be surprised if this is something he’s just throwing out there willy-nilly. There’s been labor peace since the 1994-95 strike/lockout, and players have seen their compensation grow dramatically over that time, making them more willing to go along and avoid labor conflict. The unprecedented 2017-18 offseason, however, may be changing all that, and if the players want to do something to get ownership’s attention, a spring training boycott would seem to accomplish that.
The players’ bigger problem, however, may well be that the way the system has worked up to this point -- minimum salaries for three years, arbitration salaries for three years, and then players getting paid big bucks in free agency around they time they are exiting their prime years -- has, correctly, been identified by teams as a less than ideal way to allocate resources. Analytic types have been saying for at least the past two decades that spending big money in free agency rarely works out well for teams, that long-term deals usually end up looking bad in the final years of the contract. If the new generation of front office types are embracing that reality, and adjusting how they are constructing their teams and allocating their dollars accordingly, then players who were getting less early in their careers with the understanding that be rewarded when they hit free agency aren’t unjustified in feeling that they’ve been victimized by a bait-and-switch.
What I think this offseason may ultimately trigger is a fundamental change in the why players are compensated while under team control. An increase in major league minimum salaries, starting the arbitration process earlier, and increasing the leeway players have in regards to the comparisons they can use in arbitration would all seem to be options players would want to pursue as they seek to shift more money to players with less service time, in an effort to balance out teams’ newfound lack of willingness to splurge in free agency.
This offseason has been a Perfect Storm of sorts, with big dollar teams looking to re-set their luxury tax rates, fewer teams seeing themselves in position to seriously compete this year, more teams embracing the notion of being willing to lose more games in the short run in order to be in a better position in the long term, and a generally weak free agent class. Next season’s stellar free agent class, with more teams willing to spend, may put some of these issues to rest. But I do think this winter is going to end up significantly altering the nature of player compensation going forward.