GLENDALE, Ariz. – Los Angeles Dodgers superstar closer Kenley Jansen is in a great spot, with a Dodgers team that goes for it every year and his own near-record-for-a-reliever $80 million contract that was signed a winter ago in hand. But he is worried about the other guys – the stars and the rest. And the other teams, too.
Right now, Jansen seems even more worried about those other teams, and he wonders if they are even trying to compete with teams like the Dodgers. A winter where as many as half the teams did nothing or next-to-nothing of significance may be good for the Dodgers in the short-term, but he wonders if it’s good for the sport to have teams with no chance before even one game is played.
In an interview with FanRag Sports, in this winter that still sees an unprecedented 45 free agents jobless into March — and some teams spending at shockingly low levels despite rising MLB revenues that hit $9 billion last year — Jansen estimated that only six of 15 National League teams are trying. Which puts the NL-champion Dodgers in a very good place, at least in the near term. But in Jansen’s estimation, it puts the sport as a whole in a very bad place. He reiterated his belief that while a strike isn’t preferable, it may have to come to that at some point.
Without naming the teams, four of the offending nine teams in Jansen’s estimation become obvious (you’ll see why) when the Dodgers closer gave his rundown of the locales of the teams with effort, and those without. Specifically, Jansen says he believes three teams are trying in the NL West, two in the NL Central and only one in the NL East.
“There’s one team competing for the title in the NL East!” Jansen says, incredulously.
Jansen referred a time or two to the effort deficit as “tanking,” and he knows that’s a sensitive word, depending on how you define it. He knows that stirs up some bad feelings, and while he is unafraid to mince words, he couched it more often about how teams’ efforts seem to be lacking rather than an all-out effort to lose.
“They’re just not trying that hard,” Jansen said. “I think they are competing for the championship of revenue (profit). I think they are trying to see who can have the most revenue (profit). I think they don’t care about the trophy. No disrespect, but we want to see more teams be competitive.”
Jansen is also worried about the 10 or more really good players in their primes who were surely expecting multiyear deals but remain free agents, and he is also thinking about young stars, like Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, who will be free agents in coming years. But he even is more concerned about the competitive balance – which clearly seems out of whack this year, when there would appear to be seven superteams, the Dodgers among them – and the game itself.
“There are at least ten guys out there who can help you win a championship, and they’re not in the game,” Jansen said. “Obviously, something’s going on. We all know what’s going on in baseball. Every year there’s tanking. It’s obvious. They just made it more obvious this year.”
Jansen isn’t alone in his thinking. Players are upset, though to this point, most of them are letting the union do the wondering and worrying.
Eric Hosmer, generally seen as the top free agent this offseason due to his combination of youth, all-around play and intangibles like leadership, like a lot of others, sees a weird winter, where offers came late (he didn’t get one until January; he eventually agreed to a $144 million, eight-year deal with the Padres) or in some cases, not at all. Hosmer recalled being shown an MLB-produced slideshow since coming to Padres camp where MLB people are talking about protecting the integrity of the game, and it caused him to wonder what’s going on. And he, too, wanted to express his thoughts, if however briefly and concisely.
Apparently, he saw a bit irony in the video he was shown.
“When you’re talking about players like Mike Moustakas and Carlos Gonzalez being jobless two, three weeks into spring training, that’s about the integrity of the game,” Hosmer said. “It means not every team is trying to win. If every team was trying to win, you wouldn’t have so many great players without jobs.”
Management would respond that spending and winning is cyclical in baseball. They would also say that spending doesn’t equal winning (a couple did actually say that). And some would also point to some deals that were already struck, and suggest there may have been others that were turned down. And, in some cases, they’d also suggest that in past years many free-agent deals didn’t work out favorably for teams, and that the new, mostly young GMs are trying to avoid those type of deals. Some would say the young GMs are being cautious, and others would call it smart.
And management people would also tell you that, counting benefits and minor-league salaries, players received between 53 and 57 percent of revenues over the last decade through 2017 – though that doesn’t include this year, when there’s been a seeming freeze in some corners of the free-agent market. There’s a number floating around clubhouses suggesting players are actually getting 36 or 37 percent of the revenue, but that’s incorrect, and even if you don’t count minor-league salaries, it’s been about 50 percent – though union people are expecting a dip after this surprising winter, where several very good players and a few stars got squeezed, likely leading to the lowest percentage of revenue for players in at least a decade.
Jansen is a rare one who’s spoken out (he again raised the idea of a strike at some point, as he did a few weeks ago – though obviously that is not allowed until the completion of the current CBA). He is far from alone in his thinking, however.
Players-side people are shocked by the lack of spending beyond the Winter Meetings run on middle relievers, who historically are seen as the pitchers not quite good enough to start or close. They get that the Dodgers and Yankees decided to get themselves below the $197 million luxury-tax threshold to reset for a later day, but they don’t get why the other teams aren’t trying to take advantage of this reset-respite. Union people always review what went on in the winter, but they promise to review things a little more closely this year, once this market is complete – though at the moment there’s no hint the market’s end is even days away.
Jansen said he doesn’t want a strike (and again, it isn’t allowed by law until the CBA expires). But he reiterated his thought that if this keeps up, it might be necessary.
“We have to start preparing ourselves,” Jansen said. “It may be a strike. Or it may not be. Hopefully it gets resolved without a strike. The fans don’t want a strike. The players don’t want a strike. Hopefully, it gets resolved. But if we don’t have any resolution, we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do. Nobody wants to go there. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do.”
Jansen is more worried about a sport where teams don’t have a chance. He didn’t go quite team by team, but worried about the competition of football, basketball and other sports, and did raise Pittsburgh as an example, citing the Steelers as a team that’s perennially competitive and interesting, and he could have been talking about the Pirates (though he didn’t say so) when he said this:
“Teams need to say, ‘let’s put together something that’s competitive.’ And that doesn’t mean making a run for two or three years, then trading everyone when you’re making a lot of money.”
He generally praised the union, but wondered aloud whether things were overlooked or mistakes made. The union and league negotiated a luxury-tax threshold that reaches $197 million this year, and seems to be weighing on teams more than anyone figured. The union has never seemed to love the idea of a salary floor, but Jansen wondered aloud whether a floor might have helped. The players union, long and rightly seen as one of the best of its kind anywhere, goes toe-to-toe with an MLB team stacked with top lawyers with a few terrific lawyers of its own, but they also seem to extensively use former players as key advisers and not necessarily the top in-the-know agents. Jansen wondered, too, whether more legal firepower might be preferable to go against a behemoth like MLB.
“The union does a great job. But we have to figure it out. We got ourselves into the situation, and we have to figure out a way to get ourselves out,” Jansen said. “Life is all about adjustments. You’ve got to adjust. It’s hurting the game.”
Jansen feels fortunate he plays for one of baseball’s best teams. And it does seem like there are seven superteams heading into the 2018 season. But that still leaves 23 teams that are something less than super. Some are pretty good – i.e. the rival Angels, who made several nice moves this winter – but if anyone other than one of the seven (Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros, Nationals, Cubs and Dodgers) wins a division, it’d be a major upset this time around.
The favorite in each division is prohibitive, with the exception of the AL East, where two superteams reside. And that’s not great for baseball.
“The Dodgers are all about winning championships,” Jansen said. “They say, ‘Go get the trophy. Win for our city.’”
In his estimation, that’s the way it should be.
Jansen seems worried.
“We’ve got to figure it out,” he said.
He frets for the fans of many other teams in many other cities.
“At some point they’re going to say, ‘why should we keep watching baseball?’”