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Inside Baseball | Grievance punctuates weak winter

Jon Heyman



USA Today Sports

The new players union grievance against four MLB teams for their lack of spending, and perceived lack of interest in winning,  probably has a limited chance itself of winning. But from here, it seems worthwhile, if only to remind some teams to try harder.

The fans of these teams – the Marlins, Rays and Pirates, and perhaps to a far lesser degree, the A’s, who have some decent reasons (more on the teams below) — should be cheering the union on in its endeavor. That will give them something to root for this year, assuming the teams are as unpromising as predicted.

The union specifically fingered four alleged violators of the CBA for failing to spend revenue-sharing monies to improve the team, as is required by the collective bargaining agreement. They might have named more.

These four teams spent almost nothing and brought in almost no one of note, and three of them – the Marlins, Rays and Pirates – traded off no less than 11 All-Stars. The A’s actually have tried to sign some players in recent years, but Oakland hasn’t proven to be a very good locale to sell; besides that, the A’s are being phased out of the revenue sharing program by a relatively new rule that excludes any team from a top-10 market (the A’s share a great and vast market with the much more successful San Francisco Giants).

Teams sometimes claim not to be making money, and it’s true the Marlins lost money last year (see the figures below), but overall revenues are rising nicely in baseball (they eclipsed $9 billion last year), and all of these teams have benefited handsomely from handouts. Figures obtained by FanRag Sports show the Marlins received about $59 million in revenue sharing last year. The Rays received $50 million, the Pirates $20 million and the A’s about $30 million. That’s in addition to $50 million-plus from the Central Fund, and this year there’s a one-time $50 million payment for all teams from the sale of BAMtech to Disney. Those monies alone easily eclipse the payrolls of any of these teams.

Meanwhile, the seeming lack of interest in winning on the part of several teams this winter – not just these four — has been nothing short of astounding. Whether so many teams took the winter off is because teams see seven super teams (Cubs, Astros, Dodgers, Yankees, Indians, Nats and Red Sox) or it’s because they’ve seen what a couple/few seasons of terrible baseball have done for the Astros, Nats and Cubs — all three drafted very well with their gifted very high picks, though fairly, all three also made a lot of other good decisions, too — or it’s because they simply want to save more loot can’t be determined. But it certainly is disconcerting.

What seems to be unprecedented is that close to 40 percent of the league will enter the season with zero — or close to zero — chance to win.

MLB reacted negatively to the union’s grievance, as one might expect. But some sort of pressure should really be applied to teams that are mailing it in this year.

Former commissioner Bud Selig for decades stressed that “faith” and “hope” were the two keys to baseball’s long-term success, and they made great strides in this arena. But suddenly this year, they seem headed for a major downturn; at least 10 teams and quite possibly more have neither faith nor hope – or very close to none. Selig is the who pushed through revenue sharing, the luxury tax and all the rest to give the small market teams a chance, and for a while it helped.

But today, according to one baseball lawyer, “It’s worse than ever. Fifteen teams have no chance.”

The owners and their real motives have been exposed in some cases, one lawyer said.

“The argument was BS,” the baseball lawyer said. “No one cared about competitive balance. They only cared about the deal.”

MLB will fairly point out that 27 of 30 teams have made the playoffs in the last decade (the Mariners, Padres and Marlins are the exceptions), and it’s in their favor, too, that the Brewers, Twins, Diamondbacks and Rockies came out of nowhere – or close to that – to make it last year. But this year, there are about a dozen teams that would seem to have no chance to play in October. And that’s a problem.

MLB people will also point out not to judge too much on one year, that there are aberrations, and that things can change next year. There are many factors that may caused a historically slow market — from a cautions, analytically-driven group of GMs now in charge, to recent megadeals that didn’t work as hoped, at least not to the hoped-for level (including Chris Davis, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jason Heyward and others), to even an eye-popping group of stars who are free agents next year (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson, Dallas Keuchel, possibly Clayton Kershaw and many, many others).

As well-intended as it may be, the grievance probably faces an uphill battle. While the standard to win in arbitration is a preponderance of the evidence, it’s probably a tough case to prove. Teams can say they are making improvements elsewhere to help their teams win in the future – to scouting (though lots of great scouts are still looking for work), analytics people, the minors, whatever – and maybe they are.

Some give it no hope. “It’s the dumbest lawsuit ever,” another baseball lawyer said.

Some say it came too late to save the worst free-agent market since the late 1980s. Others see it as a Hail Mary to save the union after a rough year. Over the past 10 years, players have made between 53 and 57 percent of revenue (counting benefits and minor-league salaries) according to records kept by MLB; this year it seems like a certainty to fall below that figure.

The union blew it when it didn’t take MLB’s offer to be rid of the free-agent compensation rule that had been weighing them down for four years, so long as they agreed to a worldwide draft.

They should have taken the first offer because it was a good one, and one that made sense.

It’s not often the first offer is a good one, but in this case, it was. The union had the chance to be rid of compensation tied to top free agents, and it never should have passed up that chance. A worldwide draft would have made things fairer for top U.S. amateurs and cleaned up the mess that continues to exist (see the Braves) in Latin America. And more to the point, the lawyer maintained it never would have been implemented anyway.

So now the free agents are stuck with a slightly watered-down version of draft compensation attachment, and it’s very likely weighing on up to three of the top remaining free agents yet to find a job – Mike Moustakas, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. (Jake Arrieta presumably is in a higher category, where no one should worry about a second- or third-round pick.)

That said, some of these teams simply have to try harder to win. They can talk about winning all the way. But where’s the evidence?

The grievance, filed on Friday and first reported by the Tampa Bay Times, could be the opening salvo in a war. You hear the word “strike” these days. Until this CBA expires, though, things will just be uncomfortable, starting now.

The union’s current goal, besides serving notice to MLB, is to make free agents that are stuck without jobs “whole.” There are 45 XX-B free agents (20B) remaining without jobs, which is an all-time high for the start of camp. What’s really astounding is the number of stars who are still out there. Many of them expected big deals, and thus far have none.

The sympathy here, though, goes to the fans of these teams, who may be as interested in a closed-door grievance before the baseball arbitrator as what’s happening the field.

A union person declined to order the four alleged offenders, but that’s my job. So here goes.

4. Oakland A’s

There’s some sympathy here, as they are the one team of the four that will likely be improved, they’ve had no luck getting a new stadium, they are going against the behemoth Giants (who seem to do everything right from a business and fan perspective), they’ve tried to sign players and their baseball regime really has had pretty remarkable overall success on the cheap (see Moneyball).

In addition, they’ve made some effort in recent years to make a splash, offering Edwin Encarnacion the best annual salary with a $50 million, two-year bid a year ago and developing a couple sluggers (Matt Chapman and Matt Olson), who bring a touch of hope.

“They will be a little better,” says a competitor. We agree here, but it’s fair to say that a winter where one of those highlights was losing out on middle relievers despite the higher offers is a bit of a bummer.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates

Pirates owner Bob Nutting bought the team for under $100 million, and it’s got to be worth north of $1 billion, based on the Marlins’ sky-high purchase price. Yet, the spending stays down.

When Nutting said at their Fanfest that they wanted to go to the World Series, fans booed him. They are not at all happy in Pittsburgh. The union is similarly unhappy with the Bucs, but Pirates president Frank Coonelly says they are doing what they can to win long-term.

“The MLBPA’s grievance against the Pirates is patently baseless,” Coonelly said. “We look forward to demonstrating as much to the Arbitrator as the MLBPA continues to pursue this meritless claim.”

They made some nifty moves to become relevant after nearly two straight decades of losing, but made some weird moves last year, like the release of their setup man Juan Nicasio because they didn’t want to trade him to the rival Cubs (he wound up on the rival Cardinals, anyway) and appeared to throw in the towel this year, trading their two best players, Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, within a three-day period.

Word out of their camp is that Nutting was the last guy to get on board with the rebuild plan (of course, he is the one who’s going to be hit hardest), but the bigger problem, as Fangraphs pointed out, may be that they didn’t make the extra moves that might have helped in that three-year period where they had a shot. That was the time to spend to win, and they passed. Then they followed that brief heyday with a winter where they were the only team not to sign a single free agent and their big move to improve was to trade an overpaid reliever for an outfielder that had just been designated for assignment.

The fans are in revolt in Pittsburgh, and frankly, it is hard to blame them.

2. Miami Marlins

They have been taking hits galore, with even Marlins Man coming out against them. Fairly, there is a case to be made that they had little choice, considering the coffers may have been close to bare once they wrote that $1.2 billion check.

As we wrote here in FanRag, they went looking for some extra reserves soon after buying the club. And to be even fairer, the new ownership group led by Derek Jeter and Bruce Sherman, who just got there, having bought the team last fall, did what was expected (and what most new ownership groups would have done) with a team that won 70-something games and reputedly lost 70-something million (according to the books, they did lose exactly that — $70 million — and that’s after revenue sharing after losing $28 million in 2016 and $25 million in 2015)!) – though they did it a little more enthusiastically than was probably necessary.

But as one rival pointed out, they have no one to blame but themselves.

“They overpaid for the team,” that rival said.

In response to this grievance, Jeter issued a statement, saying, “As we have done since the day we took over in October, we will continue to do everything we can to build a foundation for sustained success and improve this organization, which has not made the postseason since ’03 and has gone eight seasons without a winning record.”

Sure, it would have been nice had they followed Giancarlo Stanton’s preferred plan told to Jeter, added the two pitchers and given it a shot. But that might have put them in real financial peril. Stanton’s $325 million contract simply didn’t fit for an organization that hasn’t been able to draw flies (even to a beautiful new park), and they didn’t want to risk seeing his value plummet if he failed to follow his historically great MVP season with something less than that. And frankly, two pitchers probably wouldn’t have done it, anyway – unless they were going to be Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, which could have put them into a $100 million hole next year.

As Jeter asked of one fan at the town hall who asked that very question, “Which two pitchers?”

They did execute the fire sale with a little more enthusiasm than was probably necessary – turning the best outfield into the game into potentially the worst. A case could be made that they needed to start again, but they will be starting from ground zero – with a realistic timeline being five years, or more.

1. Tampa Bay Rays

As was written here last week, their plan to hold a fire sale after announcing their plan to have Tampa and Hillsborough County build them a new stadium is one of the more bizarre ones ever seen in baseball. Their baseball people did what they could, paring a poverty-level payroll by a few million more, but establishing a plan for defense and pitching that should prevent them from stooping to Marlins-level embarrassment.

The issue here is with ownership that has been saying for a decade it wants a new stadium but does nothing to demonstrate that goal. Unless they have been quietly assured they will be getting that stadium, their moves make no sense. Why should Tampa build the Rays a new arena at a time the team is rebuilding (Rays people don’t even like that word, much less fire sale)? They sent the all-time best Rays player, Evan Longoria, away in what was mostly a salary dump (though fairly did net them a former first-rounder, Christian Arroyo), they got a Class-A infielder for excellent starter Jake Odorizzi, and they dealt multitalented outfielder and team MVP Steven Souza away in what looks a lot like a major play in a rebuild, even if they did call it a “baseball trade.’’

Rays owner told the Tampa Bay Times that he believes the team is “beyond what compliance is,” and someone connected to the team suggested Tampa Bay actually lost some money last year, when it had its highest payroll ever ($87 million).

The Rays’ payroll will be a puny $82 million — equal to the reported $82 million they will make annually from their new reported TV deal, according to John Ourand of Sports Business Journal. At least that’s for now. They have been talking about dealing away Chris Archer; Alex Colome and Kevin Kiermaier look like candidates to be gone soon, too. Good luck with that stadium deal.

“No chance,” one rival says about their chances for a new stadium. “No one’s going to put their name next to that team.”

Jon Heyman is an MLB Insider for FanRag Sports, featuring breaking news, information and his Inside Baseball column, which appears on FanRagSports.com every Thursday. Heyman also has been an insider at MLB Network since the channel launched in 2009 and is a regular contributor to WFAN in New York, where he appears weekly on the Joe and Evan Show and previously appeared on the Mike and the Mad Dog Show. He also appears on WSCR in Chicago, WBZ-FM in Boston and the Petros and Money Show on Fox in Los Angeles. Heyman comes to FanRag Sports from CBSSports.com, where he worked for five years and wrote the popular Inside Baseball notes column. Before going to CBS, Heyman worked for five years at Sports Illustrated and SI.com, where he was a senior writer and started an Inside Baseball Column. Heyman worked for 16 years at Newsday in New York, where he was the Yankees beat writer, a baseball columnist and finally a general sports columnist. Heyman started his career at the Moline (Ill.) Daily Dispatch, then moved to the Los Angeles Copley Newspapers (Torrance Daily Breeze and Santa Monica Outlook) before going to Newsday. Heyman at one time also served as a national baseball writer for The Sporting News. Heyman is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. The Santa Fe, N.M. native grew up in Cedarhurst, N.Y., on Long Island.