This off-season has Cohen of the Mets spending obscene money while Sherman of Royals sits this one out. On paper, the Mets team looks like championship contenders winning around 100 games during the season - but also losing around 60 games despite their impressive collection of high dollar players.
The beauty of the game of baseball is that it is fundamentally a team game. The best pitcher in the league appears once every fifth game, the best hitter bats once every ninth time through the lineup.
The rules of the game provide a base level of competitive balance.
What is lacking is the sense of fair play when acquiring players via free agency.
To say MLB is not addressing the situation would overlook several key changes that can lead to a solution that bakes in fair play for both owners and players.
In the past ten years, the CBA added rules for draft bonus pool, international bonus pool and the pre-arbitration bonus pool for top performers. (MLB pre-arbitration bonus pool provides $50 million dollar for the top performing players with less than three years of service time.)
The primary purpose of the draft and international bonus pools is to establish a level playing field for teams acquiring talent. The bonus pool for pre-arbitration players takes another step forward by rewarding money based on performance.
There is an important distinction with the pre-arbitration bonus pool - pay based on performance as defined by a version of the WAR stat.
The MLBPA seems to focus on pushing the best free agents each off-season to demand and accept the next record-breaking salary offer. The philosophy can be described as the rising tide lifts all boats.
The off-season has seen an explosion in long-term, high AAV contracts. These are guaranteed contracts for the player, they receive their paycheck regardless of performance or injury time. The recent releases of Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas from their teams before the end of their contracts are just more examples of a system where owners waste their money on players whose level of play have declined on the back-end of their contract.
Both players are likely being replaced by a young player at near league minimum pay. Imagine their POV - playing 162 for the minimum while millions are given to two players not in the lineup and not on the team anymore - that doesn't seem fair.
From the owner's perspective, they should want their dollars going to the players who are actually contributing right now.
While MLBPA and star players want the chance at the next record contract, they do so to the detriment of the majority of players in the same union who are not stars. MLBPA should really be concerned about maximizing the aggregate compensation of players through the terms of the CBA.
The idea is to move the negotiation of a player's salary from the team/agent to the player's union. MLBPA would devise a system where the players decide how to divide up the pool of money among the rank and file.
A simple solution proposed here is a system where the owners have cost certainty and players collectively decide what is fair pay for play. One possible implementation works like the following.
The CBA would set a salary amount for teams to pay for each season (not a cap or floor, the exact amount). Owners pay into an account for MLBPA to disperse as they see fit.
Each off-season, MLBPA ranks their member players using a version of WAR, another stat and/or a vote of the members. A player voting system has merit in that players would decide who is worth the top dollar paychecks. First year players who would have no roster cost can turn a great rookie season into a higher salary immediately, not three-plus years later (see Rutschman, Adley).
This MLBPA player ranking serves two purpose - for player compensation and roster cost for teams.
Roster cost is the key to fair distribution of talent across all teams.
The top 780 players (30 teams * 26 players) as defined by an internal MLBPA process will be assigned a roster cost (780 down to 1). Players not in this list, would have a roster cost of zero. Teams are allowed to have an active 26-man roster cost up to 10,000.
For example, the roster cost list for this off-season might look like this for top players (as defined by the players):
1-(name withheld out of respect for the player )
Once roster cost is determined by MLBPA, teams adjust their roster by trading, releasing and signing players to have a team roster cost as close to 10,000 as possible for the upcoming season.
Over the course of a season, this approach will require teams to use many players with no roster cost, which would be rookies, minor league call-ups and unranked/unsigned free agents.
For the players, the length of the contract is still guaranteed, only their yearly pay will fluctuate based on their assigned roster cost each off-season.
If a team decides to release a player, the team is still on the hook for that player's roster cost for the length of the guaranteed contract or until the player is acquired by another team.
Fans want a level playing field, owners want cost certainty, players want a fair salary. This system delivers all three. Additionally,
- The reputation of owners and teams will improve as they are removed from the negativity surrounding small market money versus large market money. (see Cohen, Steve)
- By moving the handling of compensation to the MLBPA, the role of agents will dramatically change to the point where players may not hire an agent. (see Boras, Scott)
- Signing free agents no longer include negotiations over pay, just number of years and non-monetary benefits.
Concern -Team of All-Stars
The most obvious concern is what keeps a team like the Mets or Yankees from acquiring the ten best players each year.
First, the top ten players would have a roster cost of 7755, leaving 2245 for sixteen players which is an average roster cost of 140. That is essentially the three worst players on five teams or players with no roster cost (rookies and replacement level players).
Second, players will still demand multi-year contracts which complicates a team's ability to have more than a handful of top players for any given year.
Third, when money is no longer negotiated between team and player, players will look for other meaningful reasons to sign with a team like playing time, location of city, personal connection on a team, no-trade clauses and more.
Concern - How to beat the system
As human natures goes, teams will naturally offer non-monetary inducements and perks to get the best free agents. To keep this from becoming the next way to beat the system, the CBA would have wording to control this practice.
For example, allow teams to offer non-monetary benefits up to one percent of the player's roster cost. Each benefit would be itemized with a fair-market value listed in the contract requiring review and approval of both MLB and MLBPA.
This approach will maintain competitive balance as there could be no escalation of value - only a different set of perks offered by each team.