There is no denying it right now: Major League Baseball’s Hot Stove is failing to live up to its reputation this offseason.
If Spring Training started today (unfortunately, it doesn’t), the Astros would come away with only three notable major league acquisitions: Aledmys Diaz, Robinson Chirinos, and Michael Brantley. The trio isn’t a bad place to start for any contender’s offseason, even when accounting for the club’s departures. Thanks to the talent in place already, there wasn’t a free agent departure that Houston, in theory, could move past if everything lines up as projected.
However, life rarely works out that way. The same reality also applies to baseball. Honestly, the Astros could use another veteran starting pitcher to help ease the load on the young arms. An upgrade at catcher, presumably in the form of J.T. Realmuto, would also be a welcomed addition. If the luxury tax wasn’t a concern to team ownership, then signing one of the premier talents on the open market would be possible. Heck, why not resign Dallas Keuchel at that point, right?
And that is baseball’s offseason in a nutshell.
Although Major League Baseball saw record revenues in 2018 of $10.3 billion, all of it wasn’t from the usual suspects. Corporate sponsorship stood out the most to me. Then there are noticeably lucrative television deals with contract terms that span across decades. Even the Rays, as noted here last March by Craig Edwards of FanGraphs, “can get a billion dollar television deal”. The freaking Rays! By the way, FOX is going to spend roughly $5 billion on an extension with Major League Baseball starting in 2022.
Throw in corporate dollars (YouTube, Doosan) along with other varying sources of revenue, teams are less dependent on revenue brought in by the actual games. Attendance is still important in a sense, but less than ever. If teams can still generate record-high revenues with less emphasis on the actual sport, then what is preventing owners from not spending? Better yet, what is incentivizing them to spend? Honestly, nothing. And please don’t bring up winning, as it has become clear many teams aren’t actively trying to improve through free agency. Finding ways to spend less while winning has become the new goal for clubs. The current offseason only reinforces that notion.
In conjunction with the luxury tax, which basically acts a soft salary cap, the current business structure of Major League Baseball is driving down player’s salaries while revenues continue to rise. From an owner’s perspective, the current trend makes sense as it works for the bottom line. Team owners are businessman who operate in business-like ways. But from the player and fan perspective, well, the approach is hampering the game. If you’d like an example, go take a look at minor league pay and get back to me.
As front offices have transformed into data-savvy, spending efficient machines over the past ten-to-fifteen years, the days of large contracts for non-star level players are becoming exceedingly rare with each passing offseason. Even the stars aren’t exactly immune. Clubs are less incentivized to spend with the luxury tax in play, which has contributed to player salaries to stagnating in recent years. The league making money really isn’t the issue here, but it is how the revenue from the sport is disbursed. Again, see how little minor league players make in a season. Ask yourself this question: What is allowed and what is fair?
Moving at a snail’s pace this winter, it is clear to see that the 2017-18 disappointing offseason carried over into the 2018-19 one. With free agency obviously broken, or at least hampered, by the current structure of the Collective Bargaining Agreement and the mindset of ownership, it isn’t unreasonable to expect another player’s strike following the conclusion of the 2021 season.