There’s been a grand effort in recent years by Major League Baseball to “fix” what is wrong with the sport. Games are too long, not enough action, too many pitching changes, etc. MLB has introduced a litany of new rules in an attempt to make the game go faster. They are hoping it will be the cure to dropping attendance. 

They are missing the real problem. It’s been bubbling under the surface, and it seemed to come to its fruition when the Boston Red Sox traded Mookie Betts to the Dodgers. 

The biggest problem is not the pace of play (average length of 3 hours 5 minutes in 2019 compared to 3 hours 12 minutes for an average NFL game.). It’s not that there is not enough action (single season home run record shattered in 2019, along with 14 franchise records.)

The largest problem that is killing the sport is owners no longer being willing to pay players what they are worth.

Make no mistake, there will be a strike over this issue in the very near future. It will be long, and it will be nasty. And MLB and their owners brought it upon themselves. 

2020 Payroll Flexibility Champions

The Red Sox’ trade of Betts is the most recent example of how cost efficiency has now overtaken winning a World Series as the number one goal for many franchises. 

Let’s give some background. The Red Sox will be two seasons removed from winning a World Series on Opening Day 2020. They made a bevy of win now and expensive moves to acquire the likes of Chris Sale and J.D. Martinez. Those moves paid off in 2018 when they won a championship (either legitimately or not, depending on how you look at the sign stealing scandal).

Mookie Betts is the consensus best player in baseball not named Mike Trout. He is a former MVP, a four time all star, and a four time gold glove winner. He is one of the best homegrown talents the Red Sox have ever produced. 

Betts is set to hit free agency after the 2020 season at the age of 28. There are reports he is seeking a $400M contract. The Red Sox were reportedly only willing to give $300M, so they moved him, along with David Price, to get under the luxury tax threshold.  

Some people might balk at Betts’ lofty asking price. But, let’s compare the first six seasons of his career compared to that of some other stars before they signed their first mega deals:

Player Age Games WAR AVG OBP SLUG OPS HR RBI
Mookie Betts 21-26 794 42.0 .301 .374 .519 .893 139 470
Mike Trout 19-24 811 47.5 .306 .405 .557 .963 168 497
Bryce Harper 19-24 768 26.1 .285 .386 .515 .902 150 421
Manny Machado 19-24 764 28.1 .279 .329 .476 .805 138 406
Nolan Arenado 22-27 876 33.0 .291 .346 .539 .886 186 616
Giancarlo Stanton 20-25 708 25.1 .270 .362 .547 .909 181 466

Now let’s compare the first free agent contracts/extensions those players signed:

Player Contract
Mike Trout 12 year, $426M at age 27
Bryce Harper 13 years, $330M at age 26
Manny Machado 10 years, $300M at age 26
Giancarlo Stanton 13 years, $325M at age 25
Nolan Arenado 8 years, $260M at age 26
Mookie Betts ???

Why should Betts, who is objectively the second best player among that group, take the second smallest contract? 

Hollow excuse

Well, in the eyes of the Red Sox, he should. He shoud because their owner John Henry doesn’t want to pay the luxury tax penalty. Boston set a record in that regard for the highest penalty in 2019, with a total of $13.4M. John Henry is worth an estimated $2.7 billion. The Boston Red Sox franchise is tied for the 12th most valuable sports franchise in the world at an estimated $3.2 billion in value according to Forbes.. The Red Sox paying the $13.4M extra cost for the tax is the equivalent to you deciding to treat yourself to a nice big lunch for $15.

Instead of ponying up the money they have plenty of in order to keep a generational player and compete for championships, Henry and the Red Sox decided to try to win the cost effective pennant. Because in baseball today, an 87-win cost efficient team is more important than a 95-win expensive team. 

Bad teams at great prices!

Now let’s switch to the Pittsburgh Pirates. They of course do not have the spending capability of the Red Sox due to their small market. So it’s understandable if they aren’t near the top of the league when it comes to payroll. But, as we enter the 2020 season, the Pirates have a payroll of about $42.3M. That is for their whole team. For comparison, Gerrit Cole will make $36M alone in the first year of his new contract with the Yankees. 

The Pirates aren’t even attempting to put a competitive team on the field. It wouldn’t be a shocker if they trade their two highest paid remaining players in Chris Archer and Gregory Polanco before the season is over. If a team isn’t paying what it needs to pay to put a good team on the field, why should fans pay to go see that team?

Free agent freeze out

Finally, we have the debacle that was the off-season of 2018-2019. Of course we all remember how that went. The two white whale superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper didn’t sign until late February and early March respectively. Machado and Harper, despite being some of the best players in baseball and hitting free agency at just 26, had only about a half dozen teams total bidding for their services.

Mike Moustakas took a one year, $10M deal in February and then turned in a career year. Former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel didn’t sign until June and had to take a one year contract. All Star closer Craig Kimbrel didn’t sign until June either, but he was able to manage a three year deal with the Cubs. 

MLB total revenue hit a record high of $10.7 billion in 2019. But, here we are in 2020 heading towards a collision course between the league and the players union over a broken free agency system and players not being paid their worth. Player contracts are higher than they ever have been, but fewer and fewer teams are willing to offer them, despite league wide revenue at an all time high.

Time is running out

The league brass has been scrambling to try and find a way to reverse the downward trend of attendance over the last five years. They’ve made numerous tweaks to the game itself and how it’s played in an effort to bring more fans through the gates. Perhaps they should convince their owners to use their record revenue to build competitive teams instead of pocketing it for their own personal gain.