November 15, 2018

Soft Salary Cap or Soft Headed Under the Cap?

January 25, 2018 by · 1 Comment 

There are two weeks until pitchers and catchers report to spring training camps in Florida and Arizona. Yet the most prized pitching prospects, Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta remained unsigned as do Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb. Among position players, J.D. Martinez, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Eric Hosmer are the four most notable unsigned players followed by Jose Bautista, Todd Frazier, Carlos Gomez, Melky Cabrera, Alcides Escobar, Yunel Escobar and Eduardo Nunez to name a few. The overall inaction on the free agent market has led some to speculate whether the luxury tax on total team salaries, first stipulated in 1996, has served finally as a soft salary cap and is weighing down player salaries.

Oh boy, that is a good one. Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain are all said to be sitting on multiple offers. Alex Cobb has yet to throw 180 innings in any of his six years with the Tampa Bay Rays and is reportedly asking for a four- or five-year deal for somewhere in the vicinity of $20 million annually. So the idea that draft pick compensation or the lack of a big dog in the room–the Yankees and Dodgers seem more concerned about the luxury tax than in prior years–just doesn’t fly when trying to decide why the free agent signing period is dragging on so long. No, there is not a bidding frenzy as may have been the case in some previous off-seasons, but something else is going on and I think it has more to do with the agents, the union and the players than those on the other side of the table.

This is no anti-union screed. I paid union dues for almost 25 years, so I have paid my dues quite literally.

I only know of one situation where I have heard what goes on in the players mind weighing contract offers. When Ian Desmond was considering the seven-year, $107 million, back-loaded contract offer from the Washington Nationals, I heard what the young shortstop was thinking and what he was being told by his agent from a second hand source who spoke to Desmond about the issue during the negotiations. Desmond’s agent and others urged him to consider not just the size of the contract, but whether it was fair of him to grab what might not be the biggest possible, most front-loaded paycheck, when it could have a detrimental impact on salaries overall. He might be taking something less than he might earn if he waited. Listening to such self-interested voices, Desmond played out the string and went begging at the end of his contract year, slashing a meager .233/.290/.384 under the pressure of it all.

Desmond took a one-year deal from the Texas Rangers and turned in another fine season where he played numerous positions, slashed .285/.335/.446, and had 22 home runs and 21 stolen bases. That netted him a five-year deal worth $70 million from the Colorado Rockies who will be kicking themselves for another four years as a result. Remember that vision–the Rockies front office spitting and cursing at the long-term effects of the Desmond signing that will no doubt curtail their efforts in years to come.

There is a fine article about Scott Boras and his “end-run” strategy by Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post, where she describes Boras’ success at the end of the post-season in appealing directly to aging, perhaps senile owners, to sign his least appetizing players. The tension she depicts between the stat geeks who knew Matt Wieters was a serious risk and Ted Lerner, who believes that Scott Boras is the real genius in the room, is telling. That tension, between general managers and their staff on the one side and the owner who wants to win now at whatever cost, is not uncommon.

What I took away from that article and numerous others is that the players are still far overpaid and soft-headed in their narcissism. Like Reubenesque women at the bath, the players spend the off-season at the gym or with their accountants, musing about what riches lie ahead. The sports media are the ones that paint them, using the dim lighting of the winter months to touch up the credentials of players like Alex Cobb who would be extremely well-served by a three-year, $45 million deal.

The sad fact is that free-agent players are most commonly 30+ years of age and on the back nine of their careers. They may have several years of peak performance left in the tank, but whether it is Albert Pujols or Evan Longoria, the statistics do not support the idea that they will provide the kind of return on investment that agents like Boras claim. Read the article or run the numbers, neither is wrong. Teams are paying for past performance not future performance, hard stop.

The idea most popular in the press currently is the idea that the owners are squeezing the players. But in fact the quality of the players needs a little squeezing, like a grapefruit on the market shelves after a big Florida freeze. The quality of this year’s crop is not what it will be after next season and the judicious investors are keeping their purses tightly aligned to that eventuality.

So sign a frigging contract JD. You are going to end up playing for the Red Sox and what is the point in all the posturing. Get on the bus, Gus and set us all free.

 

Comments

One Response to “Soft Salary Cap or Soft Headed Under the Cap?”
  1. Marc Hall says:

    All good points Ted. I would add to it that this winter is not the most appealing crop of free agents. Neither Yu Darvish with his terrible WS performance or Jake Arrieta who is no one’s idea of a number 1 starter are that enticing. As to position players next year with Harper, Machado looks to be far more interesting than JD Martinez et al. Simply not aa good a free agent pool.

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