Originally Published: February 6, 2018 6 p.m.
If you think this winter has been a cold one, it’s been even colder for MLB free agents. With pitchers and catchers reporting next week, 110 players remain unsigned, wondering if they’ll have a job this season.
A number of theories have been advanced to explain the stalemate - a less talented group of free agents, the reluctance to part with draft picks, teams saving their resources for a star-studded group of free agents next year, the financial benefits of staying under the luxury tax this year, and the “C” word - collusion.
Marvin Miller, the first executive director of the MLBPA, would be aghast at the direction the union has taken in recent times. Under Miller, the union was focused on economic issues – salaries, pensions, arbitration and free agency. When Miller came on board in 1967, the average player salary was $19,000. Today, it exceeds $4 million.
Don Fehr succeeded Miller and Michael Weiner took the reins of the union after Fehr retired in 2009. Tony Clark took over as executive director in 2013 after Weiner’s tragic death from brain cancer. Miller was an economist, Fehr and Weiner lawyers. Clark was a long-time MLB player who vowed to represent the players’ wants and needs. Today’s players value “personal comforts,” like off-days during the season, above economic issues.
In fairness to Clark, the players’ percentage of league revenue began shrinking before he negotiated the last CBA in 2016. Despite an increase in average salary, the players’ cut of MLB revenues shrank from a high of 56 percent in 2002 to 38 percent in 2014. Baseball players now receive the lowest percentage of revenues in the four major league team sports.
The players’ position is best illustrated by Dodgers’ pitcher Rich Hill, who signed a three-year, $48 million contract as a free agent last year. “Something that doesn’t seem very fair (is) going on,” said Hill. “Players just want what’s fair.” Based on this winter’s slowly developing free agent market, what players see as fair apparently isn’t viewed by the owners as fair. One prominent agent has recommended that the players boycott spring training. Kenley Jansen of the Dodgers has suggested the players should consider a strike.
The unrealistic nature of those comments are in sharp contrast to the realism exhibited by Brandon Moss. In an interview with the MLB Network, Moss said the players’ union has to take responsibility for the balance of power that has tilted greatly towards ownership. “It’s our own doing,” said Moss. “These past two collective bargaining agreements…I think that we have given the owners…who are very, very business savvy, a very good opportunity to take advantage of a system that we have created for ourselves…We have the right to bargain and set our price just like the owners have the right to meet that price.”
Moss couldn’t have said it better. The players have allowed the balance of power to shift from them to the owners. How that plays out in the future is yet to be determined.
Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, Minor League Baseball team owner and current investor in MiLB teams. He is a professor in and chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland and maintains the blog, sportsbeyondthelines.com. The opinions in this column are the author’s. Kobritz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.