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.

Global World Series is a Great Idea

ESPN posted this brief article about the idea of a Global World Series.  Actually, what they mean is a series between the winner of the World Series and their Japanese counterparts.

The Players Union would have to agree to this, and no doubt there will be concerns over extending the already-too-long baseball season, travel time, and potential injuries.  I’m not a big fan of fixing what isn’t broken (see: Interleague Play), but I think this is a great idea.

Japanese players can play their style or ours

Baseball has lost its preeminent place in the American sporting scene to football.  Yet it’s the bees knees in Japan.  That country loves baseball, and if the last two World Baseball Classics are proof of anything, they’re really good at it.  Major League Baseball should embrace Japan as a partner in the lovely hobby of baseball love.

Here’s how to go about this.  First, tidy up the MLB season and particularly the playoffs so that the World Series ends in October.  The Japanese league championship is also held in October, so timing works.  Pacific Ocean travel is exhausting and time-consuming, so the 7-game series should alternate years between a Japanese and an American venue.  Because this is an international exhibition, and weather is a problem in November, the American series should not be played in the home stadium of the World Series winner, but rather a rotating venue with little chance of rain or snow-outs.  Baseball can cherry pick its venues (Seattle, Los Angeles) at first to ensure good attendance until the concept gains momentum.

Speaking only for myself, I’d love to watch this series.  I want to know who the best players are in Japan, and I want to see them compete against Americans.  The World Baseball Classic does not reliably set that up often enough.  This might also help stem the tide of Japanese players coming to the US.  As much as I love Ichiro!, America’s money and (allegedly) higher caliber of play is threatening to reduce the Japanese leagues into a farm system.  Letting Japanese players with “the zeal of a challenger” get their fix in this series might be enough to prevent them from bailing on their homeland league.

There are some problems with the idea.  First, it will undermine the WBC’s current monopoly on international baseball competition.  Second, finding an American city interested in a 7-game series between a Japanese team and not their hometown team may be problematic.  But as the 2008 World Series showed, nothing takes the wind out of a series’ sails like horrible weather.  I think it’s worth taking the hit in attendance in order to ensure playable conditions.  Furthermore, I expect the money in this for the MLB is in television rights, not seat prices.  So price it cheaply until it gets big.

Here’s my personal data point: I hate the Yankees, and was very unhappy that they won the 2009 World Series.  Yet if Philly had a domed stadium, I would buy a $50 ticket to watch the Yankees play in Philly against the Japanese champions.  File that away, MLB marketing drones.

I would be surprised if this happens, because I think the Players Union will not like it.  A team that just won the World Series will not want to fly to Japan for two weeks immediately afterward.  But as a fan I’d love to watch that matchup, it contains the potential for great baseball and international bragging rights, and would be an important step in baseball’s embrace of the international baseball community.