It’s easy to predict contentious negotiations and perhaps even a work stoppage when Major League Baseball and the players union negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement after the season, particularly in light of recent revelations about teams’ spending. Or perhaps I should say the lack of spending as a result of increasingly risk-averse behavior by owners who have reaped the benefits of nearly two decades of revenue growth.
While the pandemic gave the league a very convenient “biblical losses” excuse that doesn’t stand up well in the face of additional revenue streams, it’s becoming increasingly evident that what’s been painted as a reactionary trend is actually antediluvian. As Buster Olney lays out in an ESPN+ piece ($) that appears to have been published without oversight from an editor, both “dollars and years are disappearing from MLB free agents.”
I won’t reproduce all the data here out of respect for the paywall, but suffice to say the trends are not good. Of note, there had been only 22 multi-year deals signed through February 9. While there are still a few remaining free agents in one of the largest classes ever, it’s still possible this offseason will see the fewest multi-year deals since 17 were agreed to ahead of the 1994 season.
Anyone remember what happened that year?
The average deal this winter has been $11.4 million, a number that would look much lower if not for Trevor Bauer‘s three-year, $102 pact with the Dodgers. But even that is a little misleading because Bauer’s total guarantee is less than half of what Stephen Strasburg got ($245 million) and less than one-third of Gerrit Cole‘s deal ($324 million). Even with Bauer’s significant annual pay, the overall average would be the lowest since 2010 saw free agents landing $9.6 million.
What’s more, the average length of deals has dropped to 1.47 years from 2.1 in the season prior to the implementation of the current CBA. With the exception of a slight bump from 2018 to ’19, that average has fallen steadily each season. Again, this isn’t about COVID keeping fans out of ballparks. I mean, yes, that is a factor, but it’s the height of intellectual dishonesty to suggest that owners are suddenly tightening the reins on spending.
While the sport’s natural cycle contributes to wide swings in spending, the $1.034 billion committed to free agents this winter would be the lowest since 2009 ($815 million). This year would also mark the first time spending has been under $1.3 billion since 2010 and the nearly 52% drop from last year’s $2.134 billion expenditure is easily the largest plunge during the period in question.
Though recent “splurges” have made their numbers look a little better in the time since Olney’s data was collected, the Cubs are still among the leaders out of 25 teams that will see a reduction in per-game payroll. And that’s not even considering the 100-plus employees they fired last year. The Cubs are down about $40 million from last year’s $198.7 million payroll, a decrease that would have been even bigger prior to their reunion with Jake Arrieta.
That signing was ironic enough because it saw the team pull off a reverse swap of the 2018 offseason that saw Arrieta replaced by Yu Darvish. It becomes more so when you consider how Arrieta has been vocal about the financial disparity between MLB and its players. So even as the Cubs gear up for spring training games at Sloan Park and Camelback Ranch, the 2015 Cy Young winner is now part of the trend toward shorter deals that may be the final straw on the camel’s back.
Players have refused multiple overtures from the league to sit down at the table to discuss changes like an expanded playoff format and the universal DH, largely because those measures disproportionately aid owners. Even adding $30 million to the players’ guaranteed postseason pool is of little value in the face of the numbers above. What is that, like three-tenths of a percent of the drop in total free-agent spending?
Look, it’s possible that owners will miraculously acquiesce to players’ desire for concessions and that something gets hammered out next winter. Or maybe the players back down from some of their demands, though they flubbed the negotiations in a bad way five years ago and are looking to gain back ground they lost in addition to making new headway.
All things considered, I am not the least bit optimistic for an on-time start to the 2022 season, which would be a tremendous misstep by the league. MLB has been notoriously bad at marketing itself, though, so I don’t have any faith in the commissioner’s office to suddenly reverse course and understand how the greater good of the game is more important than winning a battle against the very players who fuel this multi-billion-dollar industry.
Hey, maybe Theo Epstein can help to bridge that gap as part of his new role as a consultant to the league office.