A Rethinking of How Baseball Should Work

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I read a fun article by Grant Brisbee earlier about the changing face of baseball economics:

In baseball, the best players are usually the cheapest players.

This is a truism, and that sentence probably didn’t blow the minds of anyone reading this. It’s something we’ve internalized and accepted long ago. To be a baseball fan is to know that the best players are usually the cheapest players. If you want something like a scientific proof for this point, it would go something like this:

  • Players are usually in their prime between the ages of 24 to 29.
  • Players from the ages of 24 to 29 usually haven’t had control over where they want to play.
  • Players make more money when they have control over where they want to play.

The whole article is worth a read, but that paragraph reminded me of a thought that we didn’t have time to talk about on the recent Dreamcast (you should listen anyway and rate us on iTunes); do baseball players really deserve to be paid as they are?  To that end, if we consider that we watch baseball games for entertainment and to be awed by superior feats of athleticism, and we are willing to pay stupid amounts of money on game tickets and merchandise to do so, then the answer has to be yes.  Along the way, as we got more obsessed with the game we love and learned more about the inner workings of analysis and running a team like a business (because ultimately, that’s why billionaires buy sports teams, right?), we bought into the idea of efficiency and the cost of a win, and as Grant writes:

Here are prospects and why they’re important.

Fans nod and go along with it. It makes so much sense. Young players are better. Young players are cheaper. Cheaper players allow teams to acquire the players who are somehow better without being young. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

I’ve been following the Cubs since Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire kicked off the home run barrage in 1998, and I’ve been doing this as a consistent hobby since 2010, so I feel like I’ve learned a lot about baseball.  Heck, I even coach baseball for the high schools I’ve worked for since I got out of graduate school.  But I am absolutely guilty of thinking about prospects the way Grant described.  That previous blog I linked was written at the start of the rebuild orchestrated by newly hired Cubs President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein, and they did the rebuild by the book, cutting payroll and fat from the roster and piling up the prospects.

As the years went by and we became more aware of the ramifications of the past two collective bargaining agreements, the way we think about baseball transactions and roster construction started to get almost inhuman, where we thought of players more as assets or property than as human beings trying to make a living (albeit a much better living than, say, me as a teacher).  For example, when I predicted almost the exact moment Kris Bryant could be called up while maintaining an extra year of control, I had no qualms about the human side of the equation, because I, like many fans and armchair GMs, had been conditioned to think of baseball as a business and to try to save the team as much money as possible while maintaining as much control as possible.  For that, I think I feel very guilty now, even though it’s not really my life or career, and in the same vein, it isn’t my money to throw at a free agent or other player.

Ultimately, Kris Bryant got a record first year arbitration contract, so he’s pretty much set for life.  Bryant already was set for life when he got his bonus check when the Cubs drafted him, but the service time manipulation still sticks in his craw, and when he became the Cubs’ union representative, his comments suggested that he would fight for future players in the same position as he found himself in 2015.  Similarly, Braves prospect Ronald Acuña found himself in the same situation we celebrated the Cubs for when they made sure Bryant only got 171 days of service time in 2015 instead of 172.

But the team officials making these decisions can’t quite express the obvious reasons why they’re doing it. So they instead say things like, “One way or the other, we have to do what feels right, what’s the right path and right development path for the player…The more we talked about it from an organizational standpoint, having more development time—no one’s ever been hurt by that.” Instead of saying “if we called him up now he would cost us more later,” they serve up zero calorie execu-blither like, “we just want him to get into the flow, keep doing what he was doing and he’ll find his way back here, hopefully very soon.”

MLB has been marketing the hell out of Acuña all spring, as he has been blistering the ball all over the place before he was sent back to minor league camp because he needed the extra seasoning.  There is no protection for the prospect in this case, even if the CBA has some fru-fru language about doing things in good faith.  The best the prospect can do is file a grievance, like Bryant did, but it’s increasingly apparent that nothing will ever come of it because the prospect has no leverage.  If you think about it, minor league players have absolutely no leverage since they have no union and Congress is about to make sure that they are exempt from even the most basic minimum wage protections. Also, there’s really no incentive for the owners to pay their minor league players since they, well, don’t have to.

So I guess we have come full circle with a triple-whammy of suck for the labor force that drives baseball.

  • In the beginning, North American players are restricted in terms of who they can sign with due to the draft.  International amateurs are now limited in how much they are allowed to make in their first bonus due to the new CBA, in which clubs can’t even go above their spending limits because of a hard cap.
  • Once they get to the professional ranks, minor league players will get paid poverty-level wages until they are either added to the 40-man roster or can make the majors.
  • GMs will do what they did to Bryant and now Acuña as they work to prolong club control, depress wages, and delay free agency to save money.  And free agents, who reach that milestone in their late 20s and most likely 30s, will see themselves get frozen out of the available money because teams have decided not to pay out anymore for a multitude of reasons.

As I’ve said before, now that I know a bit more about the dynamics of the baseball economy, with all things being equal, I side with the players on this because the players are who I pay to see.  I am aware that even the players on minimum salary will make ten times more than I do in a single year.  But if I had control over the situation, I would want money funneled towards the actual product that entertains me, not the billionaire who smokes his cigar in his luxury box or who is possibly floating on a yacht in the ocean and isn’t even at the ballpark.

Fans say that they feel players already get paid enough, which is probably true relative to the rest of us peasants, but we can’t do what these players do, and that’s why we pay to see them.  Most of us can’t act as well as, say, Robert Downey Jr., which is why he gets paid a boatload of money to play Iron Man and we pay for movie tickets to see him as Iron Man.  Most of us can’t sing as well as Beyonce, which is why we (well, not me, because I’m not THAT big of a fan) pay for her music and concerts and she gets a huge chunk of that money as well.  People will always pay a stupid amount of money for entertainment, so I would argue that the stupid money should go towards the people who actually do the entertaining.

Let’s just start with the minor leaguers, especially the ones who receive piddling signing bonuses and pretty much have to work as extremely underpaid interns.  Baseball revenues are through the roof, and less than 5% of that revenue is even going towards their minor league apprentices:

I just did some napkin math and if all minor leaguers for all 30 teams and their various affiliates got a minimum annual salary of $35000 (which I used arbitrarily as a fair entry-level salary), that would cost a total of $252MM, which is like $8.4MM per club. That’s assuming every team maxes out at eight affiliates each and has 30 players per affiliate.  That is maybe another 3-4% in total MLB revenues.  And as many smart people have pointed out, getting that floor of around $35000 would allow players to have better peace of mind and concentrate on getting better at what the big league team wants them to do; play baseball well.

The Cubs famously built new training facilities in both Arizona and the Dominican Republic to help their players develop, and while that’s all well and good (other franchises have also done their prospects a solid by creating better diets and even doing neurological and sleep studies to improve performance), getting fairly compensated for labor seems like a basic human right.  Considering how much money the Ricketts Family rakes in these days, it probably wouldn’t hurt for them to hook their prospects up.  On a macro level, fair pay gives the players an incentive to persist in the sport and potentially give the organization another useful player to win with.  Fair pay also can help promote the sport by having kids choose baseball, knowing full well that they are less likely to get their heads turned into chowder by playing a contact sport like football, while being able to make a living with their skillset.

Since we are unlikely to ever see the draft actually go away, and for teams to lose their shot at drafting and developing their next great superstar, there may not be much that the union can do on that front.  They seem barely able to protect their own current interests at this point in the game, but the players do see what is happening and may be mobilizing for a prolonged fight before the next negotiations.  Will they actually fight for minor league fair pay?  That may not be as likely, but now it seems that minor leaguers have no labor protections, and I don’t know if they can even form a union given the new spending bill’s little paper-clipped rider.

My guess is that the players try to push back on the punitive luxury tax as well as trying to funnel more money to younger players.  But my experience with unions is that salary structures reward seniority more so than entry-level employees, because that is where the interests usually lie.  So I don’t think I will hold my breath to see this happen.  However, something needs to happen such that the players and owners can divvy up that huge revenue pie, and to keep the talent pool in baseball flowing, or else the sport might be in trouble.  That would require both parties to stop being short-sighted and think about how to maintain a fair and generous salary structure to attract talent, and to mandate that teams spend reasonably to be competitive so we don’t see multiple Marlins-like teardowns each season.

In the end, this isn’t really my money to spend, but I would love to see this sport survive so I can watch a game with the grandchildren.  That does presume that I can actually afford tickets (which is a story for another day), but if the owners are going to keep raking in the money and charge me a kidney to watch a game, at least pay the players (ALL of them, even the minor leaguers) a fair wage, eh?


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About Rice Cube

Rice Cube is the executive vice president of snark at World Series Dreaming. He loves all things Cubs, with notable exceptions (specifically, the part of Cubs fandom that pisses him off). Follow on Twitter at cubicsnarkonia

2 Replies to “A Rethinking of How Baseball Should Work”

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