This was supposed to be the winter of MLB’s great free-agent feeding frenzy.
For years, baseball fans and analysts looked ahead to this offseason — this very offseason! — and fantasized about the flurry of activity to come. When teams resisted the urge to add payroll last year and the year before that, we knew it was in the interest of financial flexibility for this star-studded offseason and we praised them for their prudence. After all, guys as good as Bryce Harper and Manny Machado rarely hit free agency at such young ages, and clubs pursuing them would certainly need to offer record-shattering contracts for their services.
But now we’re here. Spring training is two weeks away, and no one has signed Harper or Machado. It’s not even clear that many teams really want Harper or Machado, at least not for anything like the $300-plus million commitments most expected they’d land. Major League Baseball cleared $10 billion in revenue in 2018, establishing a new record for the 16th consecutive year. But the players — the guys who actually hit the homers and throw the 100-mph fastballs fans spend their hard-earned money to see — get an increasingly small portion of that $10 billion pie.
There’s a lot to it. And the MLB Players Association seems an unwitting accomplice, as the most recent collective bargaining agreement established the more punitive luxury-tax penalties that teams now appear so desperate to avoid. The competitive balance tax was initiated in the interest of just that — allowing the small market clubs to hang with the coastal elites — but is instead now used as a soft salary cap the big-market owners can point to when explaining why they won’t pony up for top players.
Case in point: In a series of baffling quotes, Dodgers president Stan Kasten told reporters he “didn’t want to go into inside baseball economic stuff.” After his club jockeyed to get below the luxury-tax threshold last season then traded Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp, among others, to clear payroll this winter, Kasten said concerns over the club’s relative lack of free-agent activity (specifically: not signing Harper) were “a narrative I don’t agree with” and accused reporters of “inventing a different universe that is not borne out by reality.”
But the reality is that the Dodgers’ TV deal alone pays them $280 million a year, and that they — like the Yankees and the Mets and the Cubs and the Giants and a bunch of other teams that seem uninterested in 26-year-old perennial All-Stars — are just not spending money the way they once did. Big market teams used to regularly spend twice as much as their average competitor, and that just isn’t happening anymore.
Major League Baseball teams get a whole lot from the American public. They get an anti-trust exemption, which helps them pay minor leaguers less than minimum wage. They often get hundreds of millions in taxpayer money for new ballparks or improvements to their old ones, and they rely on their cities for the infrastructure necessary to keep operations humming.
And it’s all done under a tacit agreement that clubs will operate in good faith to do everything they can to win. You can argue that they’re businesses, but they’re just not like most other businesses: No one’s getting a billion dollars from their city to build a new hair salon, and if I wanted to open a new Wendy’s franchise, I wouldn’t have to wait until every other Wendy’s owner in the country agrees that it’s OK to expand.
Billionaire baseball owners that cry poor are breaking that agreement. There’s no Major League team that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of Harper or Machado, and there are precious few that legitimately could not afford to sign them. They’re misleading you if they say otherwise.
Bryce Harper and Manny Machado remain unsigned with spring training only two weeks away.