Major League Baseball has a problem, and it’s killing the Phillies
Last week when I heard the news that the New York Mets had traded Francisco Lindor for a back up shortstop and a used Honda Accord, I was upset, just like every other Philadelphia Phillies fan. I audibly let out a series of expletives, as I frantically searched for Lindor splits against the Phillies on Baseball Reference.
Surprisingly, they weren’t that great. Maybe the bullpen had a good couple of days?
It is frustrating enough that one of the Phillies biggest rivals just signed the best shortstop in the American League. Lindor is perfectly suited for a franchise player role in New York as he enters the prime of his career, dripping with swagger and skill, primed to be the captain of the infield in Flushing for years to come.
At the same time the Phillies, a team who time and time again has told their fans that their only objective is to win championships, has allowed JT Realmuto, arguably their best player, to remain a free agent for over two months. With the MLB still dealing with COVID-19 and the uncertainty of what the 2021 will bring, alongside recent history across the league, I wouldn’t expect a Realmuto signing anytime soon.
It’s been a strange month for Major League Baseball. The Mets and Padres, motivated by enthusiastic ownership groups, have been making trades and acquiring players in free agency signaling their intent to win in 2021. On the other hand, there are 28 clubs who are sending mixed messaged to fans regarding their willingness to commit long-term to an increased club payroll. Recently even large market clubs with passionate fan bases like the Chicago Cubs have been shedding payroll in favor of future financial flexibility.
This past October, Major-league baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told the media that teams had lost over $3 billion due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Phillies owner John Middleton even attempted to claim in November that his team had lost in excess of 2 billion. That figure was widely scrutinized and questioned by writers and fans alike, but underscores a major problem for the league. Even if that number was around $145 million, without being able to project revenues, teams are simply unwilling to commit to anything financially.
I understand ownership groups being hesitant to make business altering moves without knowing how many butts will be in the seats this summer. Short of everyone getting vaccinated, I personally don’t see myself attending a Phillies game in 2021. But it’s not just the pandemic that is hurting baseball. In the past five years, top players have been signing later and later into the offseason.
In 2018, top free agents Yu Darvish, Eric Hosmer, and JD Martinez waited until mid February when pitchers and catches had already reported before finally signing deals. In 2019, Phillies fans spent an entire winter listening to speculation as the team negotiated with Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before finally signing the former on the last day of February.
Meanwhile, the NBA who is wrestling with the same pandemic related issues as other sports kicked off its annual off-season, where nearly every major player signs in the first week. The free agency period is an event in of itself. In an age where people demand more and more instant gratification, baseball is undoubtedly losing eyeballs and interest with indecision regarding player movement.
But the snail like pace of the baseball off-season isn’t the only aspect that’s hurting the sport. The entire financial structure of the league seems to be at an impasse.
The Cleveland Indians simply weren’t willing to pay anywhere close to the estimated 10yr/ $400 million deal that Lindor is rumored to demand in the 2022 off-season. At face value, that’s not entirely surprising given Cleveland’s history of retaining big name players and their typical payroll constraints. It does however signal a growing problem regarding the leagues best players and their contracts.
Just last year, the Boston Red Sox, one of the richest and most competitive franchises in baseball decided to trade franchise cornerstone Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers, a full year before he was set to hit free agency. The Betts and Lindor deal were immediately compared to one another this past week. But you have to ask yourself why a cornerstone franchise like the Boston Red Sox would let one of the more marketable young players in the league go for such a small return?
The 12 years and $360 million the Dodgers gave Betts was clearly too big of a commitment for even the Sox. I’m generally pro player. I believe an athlete should ask for as much as someone is willing to pay him or her for their rare combination of skills. A contract in the range of $30 to $40 million Average Annual Value seems like fair value for a top flight player like Betts or Lindor. Asking any team to intelligently commit to a single player for up to a decade or more is asking far too much of franchises.
The NBA once had the same problem. The sheer size and length of long-term contracts we’re becoming a terrible thing for the league. Once a team made a bad decision it was nearly impossible for them to recover from it. In 1999, the NBA set a limit on the maximum amount a player could make per year. In 2005, the league and the Player’s Association agreed to limiting the maximum length of a contract to six years. In 2010, that number was again reduced to five years. In exchange owners made concessions of their own, agreeing to send a greater portion of league revenue to players.
There are numerous examples of baseball players similarly floundering on long-term contracts. In 2016 Jason Heyward signed a 7 year $184 million contract with the Chicago Cubs. That same contract is undoubtably a reason why the Chicago Cubs recently decided to trade away some of its best players for financial relief. Then there are the dominant soon-to-be a Hall of Famers like Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols who are finishing out decade length deals while flirting with the bench. Often the front offices who signed those deals are long gone.
Dave Dombrowski I’m looking in your direction.
And because baseball has no salary cap these longer contracts are even more damaging to small market clubs. For example look to the Baltimore Orioles and Chris Davis. In 2016 the Orioles signed Davis to a seven-year $161 million contract extension. In theory the league should be elated that a small market team like Baltimore was able to compete financially and retain its best player. But the seven year deal Davis signed has been a disaster. Almost from the beginning Davis’ production cratered and since then he has been almost unplayable, routinely batting below .200. On a five-year deal Davis would have been reentering free agency this off-season. Instead the Orioles are stuck with the albatross of an additional two years of Davis’ services greatly hurting their chances of fielding a competitive team.
During the winter of 2019, the Phillies front office, led by men who almost certainly wont work here when the contract finally expires, made the decision that Bryce Harper was worth entrusting as the face of their franchise for the next thirteen years.
Let that settle for a moment….13 years.
At the time of the deal fans were astonished by the total value and number of years given to Harper. Thirteen trips around the sun is an eternity in the sports world. Harper seems like a great guy and is also a darn good baseball player. But the Phillies took an incredible risk that day. I would not be going out on a limb by guessing that the last few years of Harper’s contract are going to be ugly.
Those odds are simply bad for baseball. It is completely understandable why owners would support capping the number of years or total value of a contract at this point. With the current collective bargaining agreement set to expire at the end of the 2021 season, I believe there is a good chance that baseball will find itself in a work stoppage. The players and owners will both have to make concessions much like NBA did in that past two decades.
Honestly, the Phillies and the league trying to decide whether or not JT Realmuto is worth a 7 year contract is buzz kill. Just give him the 5 year super max. It even sounds better.
Mandatory Credit: USA TODAY