As the second half of this MLB season begins, Cody Bellinger, an outfielder and first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers, is a primary candidate for National League MVP, leading the league in wins above replacement (WAR). Josh Bell, an outfielder and first baseman for the Pittsburgh Pirates, has 84 RBI — on July 11! Willson Contreras, the Chicago Cubs’ feisty catcher, needs three homers and two RBI to match his previous career highs — with almost half the year to go. Ronald Acuna Jr., an outfielder for the Atlanta Braves, is the reigning N.L. rookie of the year — and getting better as a sophomore.
Each of those players was in the N.L.’s starting lineup in Tuesday’s All-Star Game . None is older than 27. Their combined 2019 salary: $2,436,000 — or, in other words, less than the miserable Miami Marlins are paying 36-year-old Sergio Romo to be their closer.
Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union runs through the 2021 season, so in theory there shouldn’t be much to worry about now. But be clear: Saber-rattling began in earnest at the All-Star Game in Cleveland. The numbers above are a major reason, with two and a half seasons to go before this officially becomes a crisis, players are openly discussing what might be next.
“Our players are more engaged and more educated than ever before,” union chief Tony Clark said.
Stop reading yet? Look, I know labor stories aren’t sexy, and collective bargaining isn’t why anybody goes to the ballpark. But it’s also important to understand the shift we’re seeing on the field — a shift to youth that made Freddie Freeman, at 29, the N.L.’s oldest starting position player in Cleveland — hasn’t coincided with a shift in how players are paid.
So all of this matters — now. The game is getting younger. “It is undeniable that young players are getting to the big leagues faster,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said in Cleveland. And when they get there, they wait to get paid — no matter how good they are. The issue is significant enough that MLB has offered, for the first time ever, to open negotiations on a new CBA while the existing one is barely at its midpoint.
Consider the players’ plight: Since the start of the 2017 season, Alex Bregman of the Houston Astros and Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees rank seventh and ninth, respectively, in total WAR, according to FanGraphs. For their efforts, those two players have made $3,630,000 combined during that time. That’s right. Two of the most exciting players in the game had an average salary of $604,983 during a period when, even accounting for Judge’s injuries this season, they produced more than all but a handful of their peers.
So the saber-rattling has started because the system by which players are paid is broken.
Which is strange, because that system has worked so well for so long — dating back to 1973. The major league salary structure is something all fans should understand — if only so they can have a handle on when the players they love will become more expensive for their favorite team to keep.
For a player’s first three major league seasons, the club essentially assigns the player his salary, starting at the collectively bargained minimum ($555,000 in 2019) with, typically, small raises the next two years. That’s how Judge, in his third full season, can be making $684,300 this season.
For the following three seasons, players’ wages are determined through arbitration; they essentially earn a salary based on previous players with similar service time and similar production. That’s how Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, in his sixth full season, can make $18.8 million — the comps put him at that number. Only after six years can a player enter the open market of free agency.
It has been a good system that has benefited the players enormously. It just no longer works.
Baseball’s rise of youth has coincided with a decline of the aged. Major league front offices, most bolstered with brains that could make millions on Wall Street rather than calculate WAR or sharpen defensive metrics, no longer pay premiums for 30-something players just because of their track records. Six years ago, Nick Swisher — then a 32-year-old career .256 hitter who had never driven in 100 runs in a season — signed a four-year, $56 million contract with Cleveland. Now, such a deal would be laughed right out of the analytics department of any major league front office.
But the players’ point: if you don’t pay players when they’re young, and you’re no longer paying them when they’re old, when are they going to get paid?
“Our free agency structure and our salary structure is that teams have a right not to pay guys when they’re getting older,” Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw told USA Today. “The analytics say to pay guys in their prime, the younger guys. So, if that’s not going to happen anymore, we’ve got to find a way to get these guys paid during their peak years if they’re not going to be rewarded on the way out.”
It’s a problem. Yes, there will be an outlier — say, 36-year-old right-hander Justin Verlander of the Astros, who started for the A.L. in the All-Star Game. But broadly, the better players are both younger and cheaper. It’s a major reason free agency seemed so stagnant the last two offseasons: Why pay old players more when you get more production at a fraction of the cost?
The players should be focused on that reality, because it’s unlikely to change. Don’t worry whether owners are involved in some sort of collusion, because they’re not. What they’re involved in is hiring smart front office leaders who hire smart researchers who can place a value on what a player is worth. Don’t cry about the death of the two-year, $25 million deal for an aging outfielder. Negotiate around Cody Bellinger, the 23-year-old possible MVP making $605,000.
How to fix it? Maybe get players to arbitration faster so they get paid like their peers sooner — and then those larger salaries grow larger still. The players say they’re mad. If so, get creative while there’s still time.
Major League Baseball’s last work stoppage came in 1994, when the World Series was lost. But the sport is not impervious to the damage a strike could now cause. The current system works for the owners. If it doesn’t work for the players — and it doesn’t — it’s on them to propose meaningful solutions rather than walk out in a huff.
The Nationals saved their season in the first half. Now comes the real test.
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Barry Svrluga Barry Svrluga became a sports columnist for The Washington Post in December 2016. He arrived at The Post in 2003 to cover football and basketball at the University of Maryland and has covered the Washington Nationals, the Redskins, the Olympics and golf. Follow
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