By BERNIE PLESKOFF
The tension between the players and major-league baseball management is getting thicker and thicker and worse and worse as every day comes and goes. From dusk until dawn players, front office personnel and fans…. wait.
This year’s free agent ketchup is very tough to get out of the bottle.
There are free agents hanging around waiting for their ship filled with millions to dock at their port. There are agents waiting to march to the bank or contact their investment banker with their latest commission checks.
Cash registers must ring. Tickets, caps, jerseys and other merchandise must be sold. Time is money. And the clock is ticking. As you read this, Spring Training is on the cusp of beginning.
There are front office personnel and owners resisting offers from agents. They are holding on and fighting the temptation to pay free agent players for what they did in the past as opposed to what they project to accomplish in the future.
There are players wondering how in the world this is happening to them.
It is being reported that players remaining unsigned at the beginning of Spring Training will participate in their own unsigned players spring camp in Bradenton, Florida. They can get in shape and be viewed by clubs if they are training in one central location.
And of course, there are trades “on hold” until several of the available free agents finds a new home.
There is so much talk about the lack of free agent transactions in baseball I fear we are losing the perspective of a serious issue that helps contribute to the current player/agent/baseball management stalemate.
Today, as I write this, it is an almost a certainty that plenty of teams in major-league baseball are working to rebuild their organizational depth. Their goal? Become competitive in the future. Not this year. In the future. When is the future? Well, that depends upon how quickly the restocking and rebuilding can take place.
Are they “tanking”? I must admit I don’t like that phrase. I don’t think any team is purposely throwing in the towel on the season as much as they are preparing to win in the future. Winning takes a proper balance of quality players at various phases of their careers. Balance between and among veterans and young players is important.
Sadly, in their quest for a championship, several clubs failed to build a balanced player roster throughout the organization. In their desire to win and keep their star players, some teams signed ugly long-term contracts to aging players. They depleted their farm systems in trades they felt would “put them over the top” as a World Series contender. Or they spent far too much on one or two players, leaving an unbalanced payroll skewed to paying a select few.
The Detroit Tigers are the first team to come to mind as an example of an unenviable mess to correct.
Team owner Mike Ilitch was the dream owner for of every Detroit Tigers baseball fan. Mr. Ilitch spent considerably from his fortune to help bring his Tigers a World Series Championship. Sadly, when he passed away in February 2017, Mr. Ilitch had not realized his dream. The Tigers went to the World Series in 2012, but they lost to the San Francisco Giants.
Mr. Ilitch provided plenty of financial resources to general manager Dave Dombrowski. Money was not the problem.
Dombrowski made decisions he felt to be in the best interest of his club. But building a bullpen didn’t seem to be on his radar. He did, however, do everything he could to retain his stars. As recently as 2015, just two seasons ago, the Tigers could trot out a club that included Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, Yoenis Cespedes, J.D. Martinez, Victor Martinez, David Price, and Justin Verlander, just to name seven. Cabrera and Victor Martinez remain. The rest have been moved as the team regroups. Rebuilds. Starts over. Retools. Call it what you will, the Tigers will likely scuffle for a few years while they transform their club from top to bottom.
At the age of 35, Miguel Cabrera will earn $30 MM in 2018. And in 2019. And in 2020. And in 2021. But that changes in 2023 when he’ll earn $32MM. And he’ll earn that again in 2023. Bad contract? You be the judge. But the Tigers thought it best to sign Cabrera long-term.
Jordan Zimmerman will be paid $24MM in 2018, and $25MM in 2019 and 2020. Last season Mr. Zimmerman had a record of 8-13 with an earned run average of 6.08 and a 1.55 WHIP. While I don’t mean to pick on Zimmerman, he is an example of why current general managers are reticent to hand out expensive long-term contracts.
Justin Verlander, now with Houston was signed to a ten-year contract that will have paid him $219.5MM by the time the contract expires in 2019. Most of that money will have been paid by Detroit. Houston took him into their payroll structure last season and he paid dividends. But those dividends were likely planned to be paid to the Tigers, not the Astros when his contract was signed.
Now, the Tigers will try to be competitive with this lineup or one very similar:
The Tigers starting pitching may include:
While I certainly don’t mean to cast aspersions on those players, the team is not as explosive as it was with Kinsler, J. D. Martinez, Cespedes, Price and Verlander.
So as the Tigers try to claw their way back to being competitive. Why would they want to sign an expensive free agent? They wouldn’t. And they shouldn’t.
The Tigers are not alone. Other teams are in rebuild, reconstruction mode. The Tigers story repeats itself elsewhere in the major-league landscape.
There are problems throughout baseball that must be addressed. And quickly:
The Tampa Bay Rays are begging for a new home. They continue to lower payroll as their ticket sales continue to lag, to put it mildly. But nobody holds a gun to the head of ownership and requires him to keep the team. Maybe it’s time for MLB to consider moving the franchise or asking the owner to sell.
But remaining at their current location and in their current park makes no sense. None. They are destined to have limited payrolls that could continue them on their current road to nowhere unless something drastically changes. Playing in the same environment year after year and reducing payroll simply has not worked. Change must happen.
Even though there are multiple forms of revenue for big-league baseball teams, the Rays have never really been a team to expand beyond a limited payroll.
The Miami Marlins have conducted another fire sale of their best major-league assets in an effort to reduce their payroll.
On this site in the past few weeks, I have noted my disdain for the manner in which their new ownership has depleted their roster. I don’t believe the Marlins have any chance to be competitive in 2018. It is the fans that will suffer, not the team ownership. The owners will still make money. But don’t count on the Marlins to pony up for any of the household names in free agency.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have traded Andrew McCutchen, once the highly regarded All-Star face of their franchise. They also traded Gerrit Cole, a right-handed starter with upside remaining. Removing those contracts likely makes Francisco Cervelli the highest paid player on the club after he signed a three-year contract at $31MM that expires in 2019. The Pirates may well be one of those teams that are seeking a “fresh start”. Eliminate another team from playing and spending in the fast lane.
And there are more. Without a doubt, for a number of reasons, there are more teams that are years away from adding a major, expensive piece to their payroll.
Both the players and the owners in major-league baseball can make arguments about the lack of player movement. Regardless of what happens in the coming days, we will have teams that are rebuilding and retooling. We have teams that are reducing payroll and trying to restock their organizations.
We have teams that hope to be competitive in the future. Circumstances have put them in that position. Most of the circumstances were by design and planned.
To repeat, those teams have no reason to spend on this year’s free agents. And yes, it includes more teams than the Tigers, the Rays, the Marlins and the Pirates.
Every time a team decides not to add payroll it reduces the field of teams available to a free agent. That team reduction results in a lack of competition for the player’s services.
Teams that can afford quality players don’t want to exceed the $195MM salary threshold that could throw them into revenue sharing with their competition.
So as I’ve pointed out before on this site, there are serious issues to resolve. Strident comments from the players against the owners or for the owners against the players will not help solve the problems. Discussions between and among the parties with mutual respect and suggestions must take place.
Only a few teams can afford to pony up to the table where the high stakes games are played. Only a few.
One of the clubs that have the resources to extend and expand payroll year in and year out appears to be the Chicago Cubs.
The Cubs have decided to provide a six-year deal to pitcher Yu Darvish that may be worth up to $150MM. He also got an opt-out clause and a no-trade clause in his deal. The 31-year old Darvish will be 37 when his contract expires. Unless he chooses to “opt- out”. His deal is the exact type of contract that could leave the other major-league clubs shaking their heads and wondering what to do next. Some may wonder how they can compete against the big guns with more resources.
And that brings us right back to the topic of those teams that will not now or in the foreseeable future be playing in the same environment with clubs like the Cubs. But Cubs fans must be giddy over the deal. I can’t blame them.
One of my pet peeves in baseball occurs during Spring Training.
Fans pay very high-ticket prices to see games in late February and March. Sadly, not all teams send players from their starting lineups to road games. Even in Phoenix with distances between spring parks shorter than those in Florida, we often see perhaps no more than two or three “regular” lineup players in a game. If that. I am hoping that will change this spring.
Fans deserve to see those players they read about and hear about play during Spring Training.
Follow me on Twitter @BerniePleskoff