The New York Mets committed $130 million to pitcher Max Scherzer, who will be 40 when his new contract ends. The Tampa Bay Rays committed $182 million to shortstop Wander Franco, who is 20 and has played 70 major league games.
The Angels committed $21 million to pitcher Noah Syndergaard, who has pitched two innings over the last two seasons.
In a 24-hour span through Monday afternoon, the Texas Rangers committed $561 million to four players, more than half of that to now-former Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager. In the month before major league owners are widely expected to lock out their players, the owners have committed close to $2 billion in player contracts.
This is not a picture of a business in financial distress.
Yet, with baseball’s collective bargaining agreement set to expire Wednesday, owners could shut down the sport as soon as Wednesday night. Questions and answers about the lockout that would end baseball’s streak of labor peace at 26 years:
The optics are confusing, but the reality is not. That $2 billion in contracts was awarded to enough players to fill the roster of one of the 30 major league teams. The players’ union has argued for years that the compensation system in baseball needs radical reform, and employers in America generally believe significant change is best addressed in a new collective bargaining agreement, not by tearing up a previously negotiated agreement. This is the time to negotiate a new agreement.
Do the owners have to impose a lockout once the collective bargaining agreement expires?
No. In any industry, when a collective bargaining agreement runs out, management and workers can continue to abide by the terms of the old agreement while negotiating a new one.
So why the lockout?
The glass-half-full view: Owners believe this is the most effective way to reach an agreement before spring training. “An offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” Manfred, the commissioner, said at this month’s owners’ meetings.
The glass-half-empty view: Owners do not want to take the chance that negotiations extend into the season and then players decide to go on strike.
Is this a pie fight?
Why, yes, it is.
If there is one fundamental issue at stake, this is the one: How should player compensation reflect the modern era of player evaluation?
For decades, the path to riches has been clear. For the first three years of a player’s career, a team can unilaterally dictate his salary. For the next three years, an arbitrator can resolve any differences. And then, after six years, a player becomes a free agent and hits the open market.
The average major league career now lasts three to four years. Of the players on opening day rosters last season, 46% made less than $1 million, with 35% at less than $600,000, according to an Associated Press salary survey. The minimum salary last season was $570,500.
In this era of analytics, when teams have learned it is smarter to pay players for what they are projected to do rather for what they have done, the younger and cheaper player is king. Players often are released before they can go through salary arbitration three times, and non-elite players hit free agency and might find a minor league contract just as likely as a multiyear contract.
If younger players provide greater value, the union argues, they should be paid more.
This is where the pie comes in: The owners say, fine, here is the slice of our revenue pie that consists of player compensation, and we can give younger players a bigger chunk of that slice. The union says, no, we want a larger slice of the whole pie, because owners’ revenues have risen during the term of the expiring collective bargaining agreement but salaries have not.
What else has come up?
The players are adamant that tanking is bad not only for them but for the sport as a whole, with owners running low payrolls and reaping profits despite diminished attendance, all the while promising fans that a better day might come in three or four or five years. The teams with the worst records are rewarded with the highest draft picks, so that link could be severed to encourage competition, perhaps with an NBA-style draft lottery.
Owners proposed a minimum payroll, which also could encourage competition as well as provide jobs for those non-elite veterans. The $43 million Scherzer will make next season is about the same as the currently projected payrolls of the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Guardians and Pittsburgh Pirates.
The union was wary of the likelihood that the minimum payroll would be linked to a modest adjustment in the luxury tax threshold and tougher financial penalties for surpassing it, which could mean more of the $2-million and $20-million contracts but fewer of the $200-million contracts.
Owners also proposed free agency at 29 1/2 years old rather than after six full seasons, responding to concerns that teams kept their best prospects in the minor leagues long enough to delay free agency by a year. The union was wary that, while more players might reach free agency sooner, the ones who get there at 26 or 27 now would get diminished contracts when they got there at an older age —again, more of the $2-million and $20-million contracts but fewer of the $200-million contracts.
Would Seager, for instance, have gotten 10 years and $325 million at 29 1/2 instead of 27? The owners do not appear interested in “whichever comes first” free agency, which would let a player hit the market at six years of service or 29 1/2 years old.
In baseball’s last work stoppage, the strike of 1994-95, the players resoundingly rejected the owners’ bid for a salary cap. In the quarter-century since then, owners have found other ways to limit their expenditures, including limits on signing bonuses for drafted players, limits on bonuses for international players not subject to the draft, and analytic-driven evaluations of major league player compensation. In recent years, most teams have treated the luxury-tax threshold as a de facto salary cap.
The players would like to see higher minimum salaries, fewer years before hitting arbitration and free agency, more chances for teams to sign free agents without surrendering a draft pick or paying a luxury tax, and ideally a link between on-field performance and revenue sharing. That could be a lot for one bargaining agreement, particularly when the players cannot trade what they want for a similarly long list of ownership goals.
If the owners get expanded playoffs, they’ll be good. They would like a pitch clock and an international draft, but they can impose a pitch clock unilaterally and they can live without an international draft. If they can get limits on the length of player contracts, they’ll be great, but there is no chance the union agrees to that.
When was the last lockout resolved?
The last lockout, in 1990, was settled in March. Spring training was cut from six weeks to three, and the start of the regular season was delayed one week.
Since player transactions are frozen during a lockout, what can front offices do?
The ban on signing major league players does not extend to managers, so the Dodgers and Angels could use the time to decide whether to extend their managers.
The San Francisco Giants, whom the Dodgers beat in the playoffs, just extended the contract of manager Gabe Kapler through 2024. The Boston Red Sox, who like the Dodgers lost in the league championship series, just committed to manager Alex Cora through 2024. Even the Arizona Diamondbacks, who lost 110 games this year, extended the contract of manager Torey Lovullo in September.
In Anaheim, Joe Maddon also has one year left on his contract. He was inherited by general manager Perry Minasian, who accumulated enough clout in his first year to dismiss two of Maddon’s hand-picked coaches. The Angels’ previous general manager, Billy Eppler, also inherited a manager — Mike Scioscia — and Eppler was not able to select his own manager until Scioscia’s contract ran out.
Assuming there is a lockout, should you feel sorry for anyone?
For now, feel sorry for the sales staffs of the teams, trying to persuade you to buy tickets for games — particularly spring training games — that might be postponed or canceled.
What if you cannot stand the thought that you might not see Dodger Stadium or Angel Stadium on opening day?
See the stadium now. Dodger Stadium is hosting a holiday festival, including ice skating in the outfield, and Angel Stadium is hosting a drive-through holiday light show.