The Rundown: Increasing Indications of Looming MLB Work Stoppage, Heyward Happy Roster Stayed Intact, Would Epstein Quit After This Year?

Thank you to Evan for taking over yesterday. My schedule is full and my days go from about 3:30 am when I wake up to write my column until I go to bed around 11:30 pm. I overslept yesterday, but I really needed to catch up on rest. I’m not a young man anymore. Sigh.

I think baseball is hurtling toward an inevitable work stoppage, and I don’t think anything can be done to stop it. The evidence lies in baseball’s recent flurry of contract extensions by pre-arb and arb-eligible players.

You’ll notice two things about these contracts if you dig beneath the surface. Not only do they all take these players past the next collective bargaining agreement, but most are front-loaded so the monetary risk is nicely hedged if there is a prolonged work stoppage after the 2021 season. Oh yeah, they’re also all incredibly undervalued. It’s almost as if the players have no real position to bargain.

Let’s look at Nolan Arenado’s arbitration filing. Arenado requested a record $30 million salary for 2019 while the Rockies countered with $24 million. Either number would have been the most ever awarded to a player through arbitration, and the all-world third baseman might have won. The two parties eventually settled with the slugger getting $26 million. But the ramifications of that filing offer a far greater impact.

Arbitration is a noose that the owners undoubtedly want to lose. The requirements for arbitration laid out by the CBA leave too much room for unrest. Its format is unique to baseball. The arbitrator can compromise between the two parties’ offers but cannot make a binding ruling. If that compromise falls north of the midpoint between bid and offer, the player wins. If it falls south, the owners do.

MLB front offices believe this is the root cause of ever-increasing salaries. There is a win-win scenario baked in for the players because a poor performance over the previous year still results in a salary increase.

I’m sure the owners would be willing to nuke arbitration in favor of giving players free agency at an earlier age. Arbitration is an obligation of sorts and free agency is an option. Plus, if owners are going to continue to pay out record-setting contracts, they’d much rather lock up those players as they are reaching their primes rather than after. Better said, they’d rather not agree to guaranteed contracts — at all — to players who reach free agency after they’ve turned 30.

The $30 million requested by Arenado is a benchmark that likely frightens owners. Those numbers go up every year and as players like Kris Bryant and Mookie Betts reach their final years of eligibility, they could be asking for $35 million or more.

How does it affect free agency? If Betts or Bryant top $30 million in their final years of eligibility, the overall market valuation of labor escalates from that base pretty quickly.

  • Each rejects the qualifying offer the following season, which will fall far short of their arbitration-settled contract anyway. That qualifying offer is irrelevant for premium free agents.
  • Those players go into the open market having established a minimum AAV for pending negotiations.
  • Once two parties agree to a contract, it serves as a driver of sorts for arbitration and free agent filings the following year.

I’m not siding with the owners here. Obviously they make more than enough money to afford the escalating salaries or baseball as a whole would be bankrupt. Besides, front offices have been excellent at reducing the amount of money players are earning. The contract extensions signed by the players at the top of this post represent a tremendous bargain for owners and show the intimidating advantage that they hold over the players right now.

When you analyze how it all plays out, Bryce Harper or Manny Machado at $300+ million over 10 years doesn’t seem terribly expensive anymore. Baseball still represents an inflated economy and by 2028 those salaries will be representative of a 2 WAR player, which both should be, minimally.

Cubs News & Notes

Rundown Rewind

  • Jon Lester remains confident despite the team’s lack of offseason moves.
  • The Cubs are banking on their starters to pitch better than they did in the first half of 2018. Starting pitchers failed to pitch past the 5th inning on numerous occasions because of high pitch counts, ineffectiveness, or Maddon’s quick hook.
  • I like “Try Not to Suck” much better than “Own it Now” but that’s what Joe Maddonintends to run with this year. “A big part of our success this year is going to be the fact that we own each moment” the Cubs manager said yesterday. “And if you take the word ‘now’ and turn it around, it becomes ‘won.’” T-shirts! Get your t-shirts!
  • The Cubs are pissed about the way 2018 ended and they want everybody to know.
  • Willson Contreras isn’t concerned about the moves the other Central Division teams have made this winter.
  • From Benjamin Hochman of the St. Louis Post Dispatch: “While the Cards could and should win the NL Central, the Cubs will be right there, again. And just like 2015 in the playoffs, it could be the Cards versus the wild card in blue pinstripes.” Ok bud, if you say so.

This Week’s Baseball Read

A Day in the Bleachers by Arnold Hano. The author chronicles the first game of the 1954 World Series between the New York Giants and Cleveland Indians, in which Willie Mays made his legendary over-the-shoulder catch deep in center field, known ever after as “The Catch.” Hano watched the game from a bleacher seat near Mays’ historical play. The Giants won in 10 innings and went on to sweep the series. Next to The Boys of Summer, this is my all-time favorite baseball book.

A Flick to Pick

Major League – Its best scenes are the ones Bob Uecker steals, but the spring training bits are right there too. Is there a more quoted baseball movie than this one? “Too high? What does that even mean, too high?”

Full squads and exhibition games are on the schedule for this week in Arizona and Florida. Despite the excess of available free agents, baseball is back.

Extra Innings

I have an idea for a new show for the Cubs’ RSN: Dempster Diving, in which the former Cubs’ pitcher rummages through his neighbors’ trash. Dempster shows off his amazing dumpster finds, and even better, gifts current Cubs seemingly unwanted treasures.

“It’s like, well, we can’t sell it anymore and so it’s going in the dumpster. For example, in a Bed Bath & Beyond up the street, one time I found over 100 boxes of unused K-cups. Javy Baez loves his coffee. Even cooler, this looked to be a flavor that no one wanted, so they just threw them all away. And I’m like, well, I’ll gift Javy the K-cups, and there’s a panache attached to being the only one who really owns this flavor.”

Saturday Walk Up Song

Old Man by Neil Young. I’m no spring chicken, and neither are MLB veterans. Baseball is slowly euthanizing players that reach their 30s.


Michael Canter

Favorite Quote: "Look Ma! Top of the World!" Cubs fan since I was five years old (1969): lover of B&W movies, the Oxford Comma, classic rock, and of course, baseball; annual roto-champ; partial insomniac; I detest the liberal use of the word 'albeit' by baseball writers; Nice guy, though somewhat brooding. Comment me, please and thank you.

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  1. I don’t feel Theo Epstein leaving the Cubs at the end of this season, Or next for that matter. But I will be absolutely shocked if he finishes out his contract with the Cubs. I think a lot hedges on what his budget will be for next season. If the Ricketts family holds back most of the 50 to 60 million that’s coming off the books for the Cubs to be under the salary cap, Leaving only 25 to 30 million for Epstein the use for free agency, I guess that could spur him to leave. I can see Epstein wanting to be a club owner, But I could also see him being in politics.

  2. Owners may not like the built in raises of arbitration, although they DO like having player-control through their early prime years. It may sting a little to ultimately pay Bryant $30-$35 million/year in arbitration, but it will sting more to lose him to Free Agency 2-3 years earlier. This being said, it is one of the “easier” gives by the ownership side of the table.

    1. So, if Bryant got free agency two years earlier, they’d build that $50-60M payout into his next contract, and adjust his free agency contract accordingly while keeping from having to pay him until his age 40 season.

      Players want free agency earlier because they want the open market while they’re young.

      The players would be stupid to give up arbitration IMO. But I do believe that is where the owners want to cut the cord. It is going to be an epic fight.

      Rob Manfred is going to go down as the commissioner who let baseball kill itself. He is too out of touch to try to create rule changes that make the game appealing to younger generations, and every idea he has come up with is not going to do it.

      E-Sports are changing everything. An ever-increasing array of entertainment choices is changing everything. Baseball is competing with the NFL, it is competing with Gaming Systems, Netflix and YouTube. It cannot win in those arenas. No sport can. Maybe Parkour or other freestyle sports.

      1. While we agree on many a thing, we are in absolute alignment in our distain for Rob Manfred. It’s always been true, but people tend to follow, be a fan of, keep doing – what they did as a child. All of the things you mention above get more attention from younger generations than baseball does, and it’s been that way for quite a while.

        Forget all these rules changes to speed up the game, as if that’s going to make 10 million people around the country suddenly fall in love with baseball. MLB’s best hope is to start investing an incremental $billion/year in youth baseball around the country; fields, equipment, uniforms, but also way more training and recruitment. The time for it is more NOW than ever, as for the first time ever football is on the decline due to concussion concern – and those parents will still want to dream of their kid being a star in a major sport.

          1. I was up at 4, but you are making me look like a slacker. Hang in there and have a great day – maybe Harper or Machado will sign something.

            P.S. – in the paraphrased words of one of my favorite sports bloggers; “I’ve grown tired of wintering this year”

          2. Same to you. I’m just tired of wintering in general. It has been snowing up here since Saturday afternoon, not heavy, but steady enough to dump another 6 inches on top of the few feet we had Tuesday. I feel like I live in a freaking snow globe.

          3. Same here on the snow. It’s still coming down out there – a slow build to about 4 inches of new stuff. At least in mid Feb we can see a glimpse of the other end of the tunnel.

    1. One of the better sequels in movie history. Parkman is funny as hell, but that catcher, too, who had to recite centerfold stats to complete a throw back to the pitcher? There is no way they made that up. That has to be based on a true story, somewhere.

  3. I do have to say – this lineup aint so shabby:

    CF Lorenzo Cain
    LF Christian Yelich
    1B Jesus Aguilar
    2B Travis Shaw
    RF Ryan Braun
    3B Mike Moustakas
    C Yasmani Grandal
    SS Orlando Arcia
    Pitcher’s Spot

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