By Matthew Scheidel
As of the time this story was written, pitchers and catchers for all 30 Major League Baseball teams will have reported for spring training. Bats will be cracked, gloves will be broken in, and a new season will bring new hope for fans and teams alike.
Well, that is, except for the 64 free agents that are still unsigned.
The thing is, these aren’t just a bunch of no-name journeymen that are still looking for a job. A lot of these players range from solid to elite. I’m talking about outfielder Bryce Harper, shortstop Manny Machado, starting pitcher Dallas Keuchel, and closer Craig Kimbrel just to name a few.
There’s no secret that the two biggest fish on this year’s free agent market are Harper and Machado. There’s been loads of speculation on where both players will go all offseason. What’s shocking is how so few teams are even interested in them. Both are franchise-altering talents.
Machado is coming off a career year offensively, in which he hit .297 with 37 home runs and 107 runs batted in with the Baltimore Orioles and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Harper has been one of the most hyped up players in the league since he came up with the Washington Nationals in 2012. He was the National League rookie of the year in 2012, and he was the National League MVP in 2015. Yet despite all of this, there are only four or five teams each that are interested in signing these two superstars. Why is that?
There are two sides to this argument. One, these players are asking for too much money and they should lower their expectations. This kind of thinking has become more popular among owners thanks to a lot of bloated contracts that have been handed out over the past few seasons that haven’t panned out. Take for example the Detroit Tigers and Miguel Cabrera. In 2014, Cabrera signed an eight-year, $248 million contract extension with Detroit that would pay him an average of $31 million per year until 2023. Cabrera will be 40 years old by the time that contract expires. He turns 36 this year, and his play in all likelihood will continue to decline. Teams have finally realized that signing these players to these massive contracts isn’t worth it in the end.
The other side of the argument is that these players are in their primes right now and are worth the money and deserve to be paid what they’re worth. Players have been speaking out in favor of their unsigned brethren, most recently Houston Astros’ starting pitcher Justin Verlander on Twitter. To Verlander’s point, MLB has a “tanking” problem as well, but that’s an entirely different column. League revenues are at an all-time high. This article from Forbes states that the MLB made a record $10.3 billion in 2018. Teams have money, but aren’t willing to spend it.
So if teams are unwilling to spend money and players are asking for albatraoz contracts, then where do we stand? I hate to resort to extremes, but I smell a player’s strike coming on. The last one was in 1994, when the league tried to impose a salary cap. The players were having none of that, and decided to stop working. The league’s response was to cancel the rest of the season, including the World Series. Much like 1994, if a work stoppage does occur, the biggest losers in all of this are the fans.
We’ve already responded by not putting our butts in the seats. Also according to Forbes, attendance for MLB games dropped 4 percent last season. Part of this was due to poor weather conditions in April, but I think fans are growing tired of the power struggle between the players and the owners. It doesn’t help that ticket prices are rising. According to barrystickets.com, the average MLB ticket price for the 2018 season on the secondary market was $76 per ticket. That’s a 55 percent rise from $49 in 2011. And that doesn’t even factor in parking and concessions. Fans would rather fork over $100 on something else.
So how do we fix this? Well for starters, a salary cap is a terrible idea. Baseball is special in that it is the only one of the four major sports that doesn’t have a salary cap, and the players would never agree to it. Players should lower their expectations in the number of years they seek, but not the amount of money.
For example, Bryce Harper is reportedly seeking a 10-year deal worth $300 million, if not more than that. If he was willing to lower the number of years he wants to be signed for to say, five, more teams may be willing to sign him. The team that ultimately lands him would be getting most of his prime, and Harper would get the chance to test the market again at age 31, where he should have a few years of his prime remaining.
At the same time, I think the owners should be willing to shell out the amount of cash needed to acquire the top talent in the game. One of the reasons the Tigers were so good from 2006-2016 was Mike Ilitch, their owner at the time. He was willing to do whatever it took to put a winning team on the field. If that meant spending the yearly gross domestic product of a third world country, then so be it. Both sides need to do their part here in order to make this work.
But as it stands right now, it seems that players and owners have reached an impasse – a fight over money with neither side willing to budge. What they’ve forgotten is the people that have gotten them to where they are today: the fans. Without us, there is no money to fight over, there are no huge, beautiful stadiums for them to play in, and there is no Major League Baseball. Players and owners, it’s time to think about the hard-working, ordinary everyday individuals who keep you in business. Stop this petty little fight to preserve the game we all love.
Editor’s Note: At the time of publication, Manny Machado was unsigned in MLB free agency. He has since signed with the San Diego Padres.