In perhaps the greatest show of player unrest of the entire offseason, Brodie Van Wagenen — the co-head of CAA Baseball and one of the game’s most prominent agents — issued a statement today stating that ownership behavior in the 2017-18 offseason “feels coordinated” and referencing a level of player unity against ownership that hasn’t been seen since the most recent MLB labor stoppage back in 1994:
In 2017, the Players were content with a status quo Collective Bargaining Agreement. They enjoyed a 23% increase in their average salary from 2012 ($3.2M) to 2017 ($4.1M).
The average salary grew from $2.8M in 2007 to $3.2M in 2012 (just 13.8% growth). That is a 9.2% increase from the last CBA, during Tony Clark’s first four years as the Executive Director of the Players Association. $100M guaranteed contracts were regular occurrences. $200M contracts: yes. $300M: yes. Not bad by any measure. Free enterprise at its best.
The getting was good for both Players and Owners during an economic boom in the sports industry, based in large part to the value of live content in the entertainment landscape. Yes, Baseball is entertainment and too often teams forget about the audience they serve.
However, the behavior of Owners in this year’s free agent market has changed dramatically. It feels coordinated, rightly or wrongly. Many club Presidents and General Managers with whom we negotiate with are frustrated with the lack of funds to sign the plethora of good players still available, raising further suspicion of institutional influence over the spending. Even the algorithms that have helped determine player salaries in recent years are suggesting dramatically higher values than owners appear willing to spend.
Bottom line, the players are upset. No, they are outraged. Players in the midst of long-term contracts are as frustrated as those still seeking employment. Their voices are getting louder and they are uniting in a way not seen since 1994.
I would suggest that testing the will of 1,200 alpha males at the pinnacle of their profession is not a good strategy for 30 men who are bound by a much smaller fraternity. These 1,200 players have learned first-hand that battles are won through teamwork, and they understand that Championships can’t be achieved by individuals. They are won by a group united by a singular focus. Victory at all costs. They are willing to sweat for it; they are willing to sacrifice for it; they are willing to cry for it; and most importantly, they are willing to bleed for it.
There is a rising tide among players for radical change. A fight is brewing. And it may begin with one, maybe two, and perhaps 1,200 willing to follow. A boycott of Spring Training may be a starting point, if behavior doesn’t change.
Players don’t receive their paychecks until the second week of April. Fine them? OK, for how much? Sue them? OK, they’ll see you in court two years from now. At what expense?
Baseball offers 4,881 dates of live content annually across 27 media markets. Franchise values are at all-time highs. Fans want to see the best players competing at the highest level.
and then sit back and let them entertain us the way they have more than 100 years.
Van Wagenen’s statements come at a time when there are more than half the league is positioned to head into the 2018 season with lower payrolls than they carried in 2017. As Yahoo’s Jeff Passan detailed this morning, the rebuilding Tigers lead the pack with a payroll that has been slashed by $77.2MM, while the Phillies ($48.2MM), Rangers ($43.3MM), Orioles ($43.1MM) and Dodgers ($40.1MM) have all cut payroll by more than $40MM on a year-over-year basis. Beyond that group, the Yankees, Royals, White Sox and Marlins have all cut their annual payroll by a sum in excess of $30MM.
To be fair, some of those clubs have spent — just not to levels commensurate with past payrollss. The Phillies and Carlos Santana, for instance, agreed to a three-year, $60MM deal. The Phils also agreed to two-year pacts with Pat Neshek and Tommy Hunter. The Rangers, meanwhile, have made their own share of free-agent signings (Mike Minor, Doug Fister, Tony Barnette, Chris Martin).
Several teams, Passan notes — the Marlins, Orioles, Braves, Pirates and Rays — haven’t signed a single Major League free agent this offseason. While the Orioles, who are said to be looking for three starters and a right fielder, certainly figure to do so eventually, it’s a troublesome development for players that one sixth of the league has sat out the open market entirely.
Certainly, a few of the clubs with projected payroll decreases have tried to spend, as well; the Royals, for instance, have reportedly made a seven-year offer to bring Eric Hosmer back to Kansas City. That unsuccessful overture cannot be ignored, nor can the reported five-year offers for J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish.
But, while (some of) the top names on the market have received lucrative offers, it’s been quieter yet for mid-range free agents that may have, in the past, expected more modest multi-year and even one-year commitments. I’ve had multiple representatives of “middle class” free agents privately express concerns to me this offseason that resemble those voiced by Van Wagenen today, though none has gone so far as to imply the possibility of a labor stoppage.
Obviously, a measure so extreme can only come from the players. But, the fact that such a prominent voice among player representatives has felt enough frustration on behalf of not only his own clients, but all 1200 players on 40-man rosters throughout the league, further underscores a level of tension between players and owners that is approaching historic levels. (For reference, CAA’s free agents this winter include Todd Frazier, Andrew Cashner, Jason Vargas, Matt Belisle, Jon Jay, Andre Ethier and outfielder Chris Young, as can be seen in MLBTR’s Agency Database).
To be clear, there’s yet to be any formal accusation of collusion, nor, more importantly, has there been any proof of the matter. Rather, we’ve seen arguments that run counter to that very notion — some from players themselves — suggesting that the small-scale increase to the luxury tax, the hard cap on draft/international spending and the link between draft compensation and free agency have all disincentivized teams from spending. Those were bargained into the CBA during negotiations between the league and the union, of course, and those factors play no small part in what has been a glacial offseason that has left a significant portion of the industry baffled and divided at a historic high-point for MLB revenues.