Over the last two offseasons, Major League Baseball has done a good job reminding everyone the sport doubles as a business — one that seems increasingly hostile toward its players. Non-elite free agents have struggled to find market-value deals; top prospects have and will continue to be held down for service-time considerations; and now even the best young big-league players are finding out that teams will do anything to avoid paying them more.
Across the league, teams are renewing contracts of players who have not yet accumulated enough service time to qualify for arbitration. “Renewing” really means that the team gets to dictate how much they pay the player, so long as they don’t reduce their pay more than 20 percent from the previous year or 30 percent from the year before last. It’s a flawed, unfair system — one that both Tampa Bay Rays southpaw (and Cy Young Award winner) Blake Snell and St. Louis Cardinals right-hander Jack Flaherty have l .
Not only have Snell and Flaherty had their contracts renewed, but Flaherty (who pitched to a 116 ERA+ last season and finished fifth in National League Rookie of the Year voting) was penalized $10,000 for not accepting the Cardinals’ initial offer. The ever-charitable Rays waived their standard renewal penalty ($5,000) for Snell after harping about how they couldn’t make an exception for him when it came to dictating pre-arbitration pay. Some exceptions, it seems, are easier to make than others.
The Cardinals and Rays aren’t the only teams who follow this practice, either — as CBS Sports HQ insider and former Miami Marlins executive David Samson noted on Twitter, these kinds of penalties are common across the sport:
What this means, basically, is that teams penalize players for not accepting terms that the teams themselves can unilaterally impose. There’s no real reason for teams to do this (aside from saving a small amount of money) — a player has no recourse — other than to show dissenters that the teams are the ones in power. It’s a punitive and petty measure for the sake of being a punitive and petty measure.
The common retort on issues like this is that if the players don’t like it they should take it up in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. The union should. But that loses sight of an important distinction between what’s legal and what’s ethical and/or moral. Just because something is allowable doesn’t mean it’s worth executing or endorsing. Good faith matters — in business and in society as a whole.
The upshot hardly seems worth the downside. These trifling displays of power over $5,000 here or $10,000 there can (and probably will) backfire — especially now that players are paying greater attention to any and all labor matters. Take a look at what Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman said about his own contract renewal, per MLB.com:
“I’m just disappointed and I feel like I outperformed that last year,” Bregman said. “I understand that it’s a business, but I feel like good business would be wanting to make a player who performed at a high level on your team happy and want to feel like he wanted to be kept and feel like they wanted him to play here forever. I’m just disappointed it doesn’t seem like the same amount of want.”
Remember, Major League Baseball has seen its revenues increase 16 seasons in a row, to well over $10 billion. Yet last season, the average player salary declined for the fourth time in the past 50 years. Teams are making more than ever before — they just don’t want to share. Nor, it seems, do they want to be challenged by their best young talents.