Trends in Major League Salaries (Tim Lincecum Edition)

3rd year player, or best pitcher in the NL?

Tuesday Tim Lincecum filed an arbitration claim of $13 million dollars.  The Giants countered with $8 million.  He made $650,000 last year, so he’s due for a big raise no matter what.  But if Lincecum wins, what appears to be a big victory for the players may actually be a death knell for dozens of mediocre veteran players looking for work.

Growing up a baseball fan in the 1990s, my impression of salaries was that players were paid for being veterans.  Rookies made very little, veterans made more, and great veteran players made the most.  Baseball rewarded time in the big leagues primarily, and performance secondly.  That made sense to me, as that’s how I understood the real world worked.  Work for the same company for many years, and your salary will go up. 

In this last decade, I’ve seen the rise of a parallel argument for high player salaries.  The new argument is that production is production, regardless of experience level.  This is the basis for Alfonso Soriano, Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Howard, and Tim Lincecum’s large arbitration salary claims.  No one doubted they were, at the time, among the best players in the game.  Their agents, and by extension the Players Union, argued that they should be paid as such.
 
In the last 5 years, teams have realized that arbitration is becoming as costly as free agency.  Thus, shrewd teams like Cleveland (Grady Sizemore) and Tampa Bay (Evan Longoria) have signed young stars to long-term deals which buy out arbitration and a year or two of free agency.  The player gets the security of guaranteed money, and gives up some money they could receive via the arbitration route.  Those contracts are also mutual affirmations of interest in the relationship between team and player, symbolic actions which resonate with fan bases but which may actually have limited value to the participants (Joe Mauer’s impending free agency being the ultimate test of that).
 
But players like Tim Lincecum and Jonathan Papelbon, who do not sign deals but rather keep hitting the arbitration trough, are undermining the notion that experience drives salary increases.  What’s more, they are undermining the entire notion of arbitration.  What is the point of “team control” if arbitration salaries are subject to the same market values as free agent contracts?  Why are the Giants in danger of making Tim Lincecum one of the highest-paid pitchers in the game if they “control” him for four more years?  It’s like the Giants are being forced to make a big free agent signing.
 
This trend is pushing teams to devalue experience and, by extension, losing player loyalty.  The Red Sox have become extremely unsentimental, as evidenced by their exports of Pedro and Manny, and their attempts to rid themselves of Jason Varitek.  Teams are increasingly tapping a rookie over a veteran player if both men contribute the same win shares to the team.  Why pay more for the same results?
 
I believe the Players Union is running a significant risk here.  Pushing the arbitration system to such extremes is a transparent grab for a bigger slice of the billions in revenue inundating baseball.  But making arbitration so expensive will only encourage teams to abandon mediocre veteran players in favor of cheap rookies.  This trend appeared in the great number of unsigned free agents last off season.  It isn’t collusion – in fact, it is the reaping of a crop the players have sewn.
 
We may not be too far from a point where major league teams are comprised of a few all stars making $10-$30 million a year, and a lot of rookies and veterans willing to play on the cheap.  Free agents will be evaluated by their wins added, and the market rate for a win will determine the deals they are offered.  “Paying your dues” in the league before seeing big money will be 2+ years of service time instead of 6, as your free agency will really start with your first arbitration hearing.  Promising young players will sign their first big contract after 2-4 years of service time, and hope that they are still all-stars when that contract runs out.
 
And the Players Union, which clamours that the market should dictate players salaries, will get exactly what they ask for.  Baseball, like the NFL, will be a game where you need to grab your money fast.  Not because a linebacker can land on your knee and end your career, but because there will always be a rookie with no service time waiting in the minors to take your roster spot.

Please, Joe Mauer, Stay a Twin (update)

Resident Boston wacko Jonathan Papelbon provides some interesting quotes in Gordon Edes’ recent ESPN column.  The article is mostly about Papelbon’s off season and contract status.  One quote that drew my attention is the following: 

Closers are millionaires too, you know

“But what do I have to give up to be in that marriage? Understand, I’m in the prime of my career. Why would I give up something? I’d give up something if it’s fair to both sides, but I want to do things for my fellow closers, just like Mo paved the way for me. I want every closer out there, man, to get every penny they deserve.”

I have speculated that the Players Union pressures big free agents to follow the most money, in order to inflate the salaries of lesser players.  I don’t know if that is true, but Papelbon provides evidence that such thinking is certainly floating out there.

——-

Also, Roy Halladay, as expected, left the Blue Jays.  However, he took less money in order to play for a contender.  Some ASC props to you, Doc, for being a classy competitor (to the extent that signing a $20 million dollar per year contract can be said to be a classy move).

The All-Cut Team

The days of veteran players getting contracts because they’re veterans is over.  Teams are looking to fill roster spots with young, cheap talent.  Want more proof?  Look at this team constructed of players who were non-tendered last week:

Garrett Atkins

My oh my, how quickly we have fallen

C  John Buck
1B Ryan Garko
2B Kelly Johnson
3B Garret Atkins
SS (none; apparently SS is in short supply)
LF Johnny Gomes
CF Jeremy Reed
RF Ryan Church
DH Jack Cust
  
SP Chien-Ming Wang
SP Tim Redding
RP Jose Arredondo
RP Seth McClung
CL Matt Capps

How many of those players, just within the last few years, were hot commodities?  It’s a brave new world.

Chone. It’s prounounced “yes”

No more unfair expectations of home runs from our 3B

As a Mariner fan, it’s an unusual feeling to trumpet my team’s adventures in free-agent signings (see: Richie Sexson, Carlos Silva, Rich Arulia).  But it looks like the Mariners are signing Chone “play anywhere and do so pretty well” Figgins to a four-year deal.  We now have two of the best leadoff hitters in the game.  Find us a player to knock them in, and we’re in business.

Figgins walked 101 times last season.  Off the top of my head, I think that was more walks than the entire Mariners infield drew last season.  I guess if you want to improve OBP and you can’t sign Bobby Abreu, you sign somebody who hangs out with Bobby Abreu.

Please, Joe Mauer, Stay a Twin (a short essay)

One of the early themes of this off season is the status of Joe Mauer and Albert Pujols.  Both are franchise players a year away from the end of their current contracts.  Commentators seem to enjoy asking whether Minnesota or St. Louis can afford to keep these iconic players.  Will they be able to match the deals Mauer or Pujols could receive as free agents?

Well, wait.  Don’t Joe and Albert get a say in this?

Much writing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth has accompanied discussion of baseball players’ astronomical salaries.  I don’t mean to add another decibel to that cacophony.  But there is a prevailing attitude to the coverage of players like Mauer and Pujols which profoundly bothers me: that they are obligated to take the biggest paycheck offered them.

*Ahem.*

sigh...

Growing up a Seattle Mariner fan in the 1990s, I watched Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr., and Alex Rodriguez leave town, each motivated to varying degrees by a bigger paycheck elsewhere.  It was heartbreaking.  Learning as a boy how the game’s greatest players were linked to specific teams (Stan Musial and the Cardinals, Roberto Clemente and the Pirates, all the Yankee greats), I longed for Seattle to have greats of its own.

Baseball’s history with respect to money and labor negotiations is long and complicated.  I understand this.  Stan Musial could not have left for Boston if he disliked St. Louis.  Free agency gives players an important lever in dealing with their employers.  But to read commentators and the last ten years of free agency, it seems as if star players have fallen into the opposite situation.  They are not able to stay with their teams even if they want to.

I have never heard anything about this, but I suspect there is enormous pressure within the Player’s Association on big stars to go for big money.  If CC Sabathia really wanted to play for Cleveland, I’m pretty confident Cleveland would have found the money to welcome him back for $10 million a year.  But such a contract would depress the signings of all the lesser pitchers.  Negotiating with Randy Wolf, an owner could say, “No way are you worth eight million a year if Sabathia is only worth ten!”  So the top free agents seek the most money in order to help out the rest of the union.

That is understandable.  But how often has a star player wanted to play for a team, but felt unable to do so because money elsewhere was so much greater?  Has that really never happened?  Do the highest salaries always come from the preferred team?  Surely not always.

The best games are played for free

Free agency not a problem

The perception that a team’s best players are almost required to take the largest contract offered them in free agency undermines the important emotional connection between team and fan base.  Young boys (and girls!) dream of playing ball for their favorite teams.  Has baseball constructed a system where those who make it to the majors learn that it just isn’t that simple, kid? It is already difficult to overlook the absurd piles of money players earn for playing my favorite childhood game (after Calvinball).  It is too much to consider that baseball has commercialized itself into a coldly pragmatic machine indoctrinating players with the belief that everybody is in it for the money.

This is more of a problem for fans of younger, less successful teams.  Yankee and Red Sox fans can root for the franchise as a lasting entity with characteristics independent from its players.  As a Mariner fan, I cannot hold onto a winning tradition, or even a losing tradition made appealing by sheer length (see: Cubs, Phillies).  I’m a Mariner fan because of specific teams made up of specific players.

The danger here threatens baseball’s bottom line.  Baseball has a reputation, which it tries desperately to maintain, of being a transcendental team game.  A sport of beautiful simplicity and generation-binding nostalgia.  It brags of a history where players were synonymous with the cities they played in.  Baseball does not carry itself with the glossy, militaristic swagger of the made-for-TV NFL.  If baseball wants to keep this aura, I strongly believe it needs to do a better job of juggling its finances and the un-capitalistic, impractical, romantic tendencies of its fan base.

I do not begrudge a player his millions, since the league and its owners are making many millions off of his play.  And a city’s love for a player does not necessitate the player’s love for a city or team (see: Bonds, Barry).  But it is this perception, almost absurd when stated aloud, that baseball needs to combat: a superstar taking a discount to play for his hometown team is a heroic and noble act.  When I think about this, and realize that this heroic act involves taking $60 million dollars instead of $90 million dollars, I feel foolish for caring so much.

Both great and adored

I hope, someday soon, a player will take a significant pay cut in order to play for his favorite team.  Perhaps the team he grew up rooting for, perhaps the team that gave him his shot at the Big Time.  For a city’s emotional attachment to individual players is part of what makes sports special, and what gives those players the ability to make enormous salaries in the first place.  And the transient loyalties in free agency, even if motivated by a union-vs-management mindset, undermines these emotional attachments and makes those contracts all the less attached to reality.

So, as my two cents, here are some players I hope remain with their current teams for the rest of their careers.  Because they are great players in a position to be forever enshrined in the baseball heart of their cities:

  • Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, Yankees
  • Albert Pujols, Cardinals
  • Joe Mauer, Twins
  • Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, Phillies
  • David Wright, Mets
  • Chipper Jones, Braves
  • Roy Halladay, Blue Jays (not gonna happen)
  • Ichiro, Mariners

Just great

It is these feelings which put Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripkin Jr. ahead of Ricky Henderson and Reggie Jackson in my baseball pantheon.  Perhaps a “franchise player” rule, like in the NFL, could help make one-team careers more common.  Possibly there are fans in Minnesota who want Joe Mauer to go to the Yankees, make $23 million a year, and make good.  But I bet most of them want him to remain in Minnesota, let the city name a street after him, and let the fans include him in future conversations about the best players to ever grace the Twin Cities.