Watching this postseason unfold leads me to think about how the business of baseball could be adjusted for the better. So, here's some spit-balling on things that could be adjusted in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Follow-up note, 2/3/18: With the slow free agent market coming to a head and multiple people starting to really speak up about it, I decided to revisit this post and add some follow-up thoughts.
Follow-up 3/12/18: I added a few small items since they had been bugging me.
First off, I'm really struck by the huge disparity in dollars spent between the teams at the top and the ones at the bottom on an ongoing basis. It really bothers me, actually. Teams like the Dodgers and Yankees spend somewhere north of $200M most years while there are often teams spending well under $100M. I'd like to do two things: (1) put even more stringent organizational restrictions on teams that spend over the tax threshold regularly and (2) bring those teams spending the least amount up.
#1: Use a +/- system for identifying the number of years over threshold.
No more complete reset to the tax threshold by staying under that line just once. If you are over threshold for three consecutive years, you are at +3. (This is just like the current CBA.) If you stay below that line the next year, you go back one to +2. You're no longer reset back to zero for having a slightly less highly paid team for just one year. If you go over for a while, you'll need to backtrack for a while.
Punishment should go up incrementally with each notch over zero. Spit-balling:
- +1: Only 20% tax burden. No penalties regarding draft picks or international signings. (This effectively only penalizes teams going from 0 to +1. Teams who are under the threshold going from +2 to +1 feel no penalty.)
- +2: 30% tax burden, reduced international signing pool, draft pick loss for signing free agents who received a Qualifying Offer.
- +3: 50% tax burden, reduced international signing pool, serious draft pick loss for signing free agents who received a Qualifying Offer, players chosen in the Rule 5 draft only need to be on the receiving team's 40-man roster.
- +4: Same penalties as +3, plus loss of draft picks in the even rounds and no international signings over ~$200K
- +5: Same as +4, plus loss of all draft picks and all international signings can be preempted by any team willing to make the same deal.
This becomes a hard long-term salary cap while not putting a hard cap on teams that are aggressively going for it for a year or two during a magical run. The first year over is nothing more than just a little money and the penalties for the second are minor but totally survivable. Once you hit +3 and beyond, it starts to have a serious impact on an organization's ability to maintain a quality minor league system.
So, that's the top part of the league. How about that lowest level...
#2: Institute a Minimum Total Annual Salary at 50% of the Tax Threshold
Any "underages" (is that a thing? kinda like "overages"?) go into the same bucket as the luxury tax surcharges.
I know that some teams can't afford this. My first reaction is... tough luck. Baseball is an expensive business. Time to pay up. We're talking about expansion cities and some of the current ones can't find the money to pay enough players.
Now, that might be a little too tough on them. So, if this means we need to revamp how money is distributed nationally to teams, I'm all for it. Maybe the Yankees and Dodgers don't get any money from ESPN and TNT. If that's what it takes, I can understand that. And if teams at the lower end start getting a bigger handout from the league, maybe that means we don't have competitive balance draft picks and extra international money any longer. I'm fine with that too. It's time for the disparity between the bottom and the top of the league to be a little less crazy.
This shouldn't prevent teams from tearing down their MLB roster during a rebuild, though. If these teams become the obvious place for teams near the tax threshold to dump off their pricey veterans, that works too. At least those cities get a little star power in those years.
Follow-up: In the comments, BaseBaal brought up a good point about teams purposely leaving 25-man and 40-man spots open for developing young players. If teams bring on expensive vets as stopgaps, it does temporarily block developing players from playing at the MLB level. While it's true that bringing in players as stopgaps can block young players from moving up, teams still have the ability to spend under the minimum threshold if you really want those young guys to get a shot. They'll just know that anything they fail to spend below that minimum number is going to be lost anyways. Teams will no longer pocket those savings below that already low number.
Follow-up #2: I really missed something here with my first post, and that's making sure that the luxury threshold grows at an appropriate rate as the league in general grows revenues. I would hope that instituting a minimum salary level (as well as some changes to the arbitration schedule) would bring up total money spent, increases to the luxury threshold should be on the table, too. Now, that also means increasing the minimum that lower-range teams are forced to pay, too.
So, when can players actually make some money? On to that...
I can't help but notice that the league underpays players that are still under team control but then overpays them during their decline. This dynamic is on full display this off-season with every high-profile free agent fending off questions about when they are likely to decline. There's no reasonable way to limit free agent years, but we can certainly tip the scale a bit in support of those guys during the arbitration process.
#3: Arbitration players get closer to market rate via bids from other teams.
- Teams can submit one-year contract bids to the MLB for any players with 4 years of major league service time (second to last year of arbitration) one week before the arbitration salary exchange deadline. Once all bids are due, the MLB notifies the team of the value of the winning bid. Their salary figure can be no less than 80% of that winning bid. If they are unable to meet that number, the player can opt to play for the team that submitted the bid (probably after meeting with them).
- For players with 5 years of major league service time (last year of arbitration), that player can negotiate a tentative deal with another team. This deal could be for one or for multiple years. Deals must be in place one week prior to the salary exchange deadline. The team that controls that player retains rights to him if they pay him no less than 10% of that deal (either 10% of the value of the first year or 10% of the AAV, whichever is lower).
Following the third year in the majors, the team still holds most of the cards. In the following year, the player can do some background negotiating with other teams and their salary starts to come up more based on their value. But, the team still has most of the power. During that last year of arbitration, star players start to sign their first long-term contracts (assuming their teams aren't willing to pay up) and the next tier below them still get paid much closer to full value.
Follow-up: In this section, I should have highlighted two things. First, most obviously, players start making more money in their fifth and sixth years of MLB service time. Second, though, is that players start to negotiate with other clubs about long-term control a bit sooner. Obviously, leading in to their sixth year, they can fully negotiate a free agent deal if their current team isn't going to pay up. They'd effectively be free agents (with their current club as a fallback). But players going into their fifth year in the league would have some added leverage than they have now knowing that free agency isn't far away. That could be enough leverage to get a longer-term deal from the new club, or with the club that currently controls them.
Follow-up #2: One of the hot topics in baseball in the coming years will be the length of team control. This idea was my attempt to soften the team control near the end, but I didn't get in to shortening it altogether. One way to do that would be to slide each of these up one year and give all players arbitration eligibility after the second year. Call it "Super 2 for all". In that world, players would get paid league minimum for year one and two, a moderate arbitration raise in year three, and increased leverage and money in years four and five.
Now, on to that whole idea of rebuilding...
More and more, it appears that teams that aren't clearly ready to make a run for the playoffs are more and more willing to burn things to the ground. Teams prioritizing the future over today isn't a bad thing as long as fans are on board (and they are getting on board more and more). The problem I have is with the incentive to be at the very bottom of the league as opposed to the 10th from the bottom.
#4: Flatten out the slot values for picks 1 through 10.
In 2017, the 11th pick in the draft came along with a little
less than more than half of the buying power than the first overall pick. While it is supposed to give the worst team in the league the best change to climb their way back up, the end result is enticing teams who have given up on a coming year to build a club that is particularly bad. Yeah, the worst team can pick first and they should have a little more buying power to go with it, but we really shouldn't be watching the reverse standings down to the wire hoping to lose every game. That benefit needs to be reduced.
Follow-up: To develop this a bit more: The 2017 slot value for the first and 11th picks were $7,770,700 and $4,199,200. That's a pretty big difference between the #30 team and the #20 team in the league , especially at a time when teams find themselves either shooting for the top or rebuilding for the next time that they'd be able. That's a really big incentive to lose games. Why should teams like the Tigers this year put some extra money down on a short-term player to make the team a little better when it undermines their draft value by this much?
Any discussion of player contracts in professional baseball should include discussion about minor league paychecks. Yeah, those guys should probably get a raise. I'll leave that for others to delve into, though. I am going to think about making their world just a little more stable, though...
#5: Allow teams to trade draft picks.
This has always struck me as really odd. Why have teams trade and uproot minor league players who have relationships with their coaches and teammates when we can just trade picks in the draft instead? Now, that's not to say that teams should be restricted from trading players, but why take away the option of trading picks in their place?
It should be noted that teams may wish to trade picks away if they are about to lose them due to anyways due to luxury tax overages and free agent signings. We'll need to make sure that those picks are still lost even if they are traded away. I'm thinking teams who receive these picks in a trade will bake compensation into a trade where they are receiving a draft pick. I could see something like the PTBNL coming in to play here.
Added item because it had been bugging me:
#6: Some released players are immune to MLB service time
This one has been bugging me. My over-simplified understanding of MLB team control is that any player that has less than 6 years of MLB service time is subject to team control -- arbitration, for example. This is regardless of what has happened to them in that time. They could be released, non-tendered, spend time overseas, etc. If a guy looks climbs up through the ranks of the minors, his first call-up to the majors should happen sometime in his early 20's. For them, they can be free agents by the time they are in their late 20's and then start earning real money.
But that's not the route that all players take. Look at Ryan Carpenter, for example. He played through his full 7-year minor league commitment without being placed on a team's 40-man roster. He should make the MLB with the Tigers this year at age 27. Assuming he sticks at all, he likely won't be a free agent in the MLB until he's 34 and well past his prime. If Carpenter wants to offer team control in the hopes of getting a team to develop him more, he can offer them team options.
Also look at Bruce Rondon and Leonys Martin. Both guys were victims of the uncertainty of their MLB contracts and were released by the team that had control over them. But, both are still subject to MLB arbitration and, possibly, reduced earnings if they really put things together. Their current teams haven't done anything to help develop the player any more than any other team has, so why should they get more control than they have over any other one-year contract? If the teams want longer control, they should negotiate team options when they sign him.
So, new rule, a player isn't constricted by MLB service time rules if any of the following things happens:
- The player completes their 7-year minor league commitment.
- The player is given an outright release after reaching the 40-man roster.
- The player reaches arbitration level and is non-tendered.
Okay, that's all I have. Hopefully, the spitballs stuck to the wall aren't too disgusting.