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Hok Talk: So how do we fix baseball?

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I’ve pointed out the problem. I’m sure you want to know my solution.

Washington Nationals v Colorado Rockies
Bryce Harper has a pretty swing.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Last week I showed you how even if the events of the last few off-seasons can be explained in ways other than collusion it’s still far worse for baseball than three-plus-hour games or even rising ticket prices. So that’s the problem. What’s the solution?

It’s going to have to start with the next collective bargaining agreement. And it’s probably going to have to start with some amazing concessions from the players. It will also probably include a lockout or strike because the changes I’m proposing are going to be pretty radical and there just isn’t enough for the players to give up to get it all without showing a willingness to stand together and refuse to play.

What the players give up

  • First they’re going to concede the need for a salary cap. Owners are treating the luxury tax like it’s a salary cap now, so just make it official and then people can stop whining when the Yankees won’t go $3 million over.
  • The players are going to have to give in on all of the pace-of-play changes. Rob Manfred can make these happen with or without player consent. It sounds like the players are hoping it will end up being bad press for ownership/the commissioner but my money is on some fans eternally holding a grudge but still watching while other fans couldn’t care less (ex: The DH Rule.) The players therefore might as well concede things like pitch clocks and putting runners in scoring position in extra innings. I know some of you are foaming at the mouth but I think it very well might be this or nothing.
  • Players may have to allow for a maximum contract. We’ve seen this structure in basketball which allegedly allows teams to keep their stars and while there’s some debate as to whether it works it still benefits owners, regardless. Yes, this will hurt the very best in the sport. But the way free agency is going lately it probably won’t hurt as much as you would have thought five or ten years ago.
  • Like I said earlier, the players have to be willing to risk everything and come together in a strike or force a lockout. Even with these concessions owners might not be willing to go as far as I think they’re going to need to for the health of the sport.

What the players get

  • If you have a salary cap you have to have a salary floor. In one sense, this should actually be an easy sell because Manfred doesn’t seem to approve of tanking anyway and a salary floor greatly devalues the use of that kind of strategy. The only reason it might be difficult is that the small-market teams will probably cry foul unless the league implements even stronger revenue sharing measures. But increasing parity in the league and getting that salary cap hardened should be worth it.

This is the really big one: Rookie contracts should eliminate arbitration years and replace them with restricted free agency. At the very least the last arb year should go, but if the players can get it they should absolutely get rid of all of them. Arbitration is already a bonkers system which puts the team and players - who should be allies if not outright friendly - at odds with each other. How would you feel if you asked your boss for a raise and you had to go to an allegedly impartial judge so your company’s much more expensive lawyer could argue about how worthless you actually are. Would you be happy to keep working for them? Absolutely not. So let the market set the value instead. No more hard feelings, fairer salaries for players, and teams still don’t have to watch them walk any earlier than before.

What this doesn’t address, but is badly needed

As was pointed out in the comments by many people last week, and has been a personal beef of mine for a while, minor league players are still getting screwed even with the deal outlined above. Unfortunately, until and unless enough minor league players are willing to take the necessary risks to unionize they don’t have any leverage to fight for more. As long as minor league wages continue to be a barrier that many players can’t overcome athletes are going to continue to choose other sports or other careers entirely.

One of the primary factors in scouting is trying to figure out if a guy’s frame can support enough muscle mass to turn his 85-MPH fastball into a 100-MPH fastball or his 300-foot flyball into a 450-foot flyball. It doesn’t make sense to pay these guys a salary that forces them to subsist on ramen, get day-jobs that prevent them from practicing and working out as much as they might otherwise be able, and requires them to sleep in half a bathtub under a leaky faucet. Those things all can stunt the growth of these boys and young men. That assumes potential players are willing and able to even attempt those things. How many George Bretts has the game missed out on because somebody had a sick relative and couldn’t support them on a minor league salary? Or, ya know, just didn’t want to subject themselves to such horrendous living conditions.

The MLBPA is never going to speak for those guys. It would be counter to the interests of their current members. The owners and the government have both made it clear as well that neither of them have any interest in stepping in and doing anything about it, either. With the changes I outlined it might encourage more athletes to choose baseball. But until minor league baseball gets fixed the future of the sport will remain in jeopardy.