The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires after the 2016 season, and while one of Bud Selig’s many accomplishments at his retirement will have been to have navigated the sport for more than 20 years without a labor stoppage, his successor will be faced with a monumental task: further even the playing field.
“This winter we’ve seen an alarmingly widening gap between the large and small markets, the haves and have-nots,” says one small market general manager. “I think we all understand the nature of free agency.” Obviously, small markets like the Rays or Royals cannot play on a Tanaka, or retain a Clayton Kershaw on a five year, $150M deal with a two year player option, or even think about Robinson Cano. Teams with miniscule regional television rights deals like the Braves worry about retaining their own players; the Braves get $20M a year through 2026—the Dodgers $340M, the Angels and Rangers $150M, the Phillies more than five times Atlanta’s take—and now must worry about being able to afford superstar closer Craig Kimbrel and homegrown stars Jason Heyward and Freddie Freeman, who hit the free agent market at 26 and 27, respectively.
This current labor deal was struck with the idea of limiting teams’ ability to spend $20-40M on the draft and in the international markets. Under the old system, the rebuilding Cubs, the Rangers, Red Sox and Dodgers might outspend their smaller rivals five times over.
But there is little differentiation between bad teams in big markets and well-run teams in small markets. The Cubs, Astros (no. 5 market) and Mets consistently pick far ahead of the Rays, for instance. “There has to be better access to amateur talent in the next agreement,” says another general manager. “The division is increasing, not diminishing.”
The succeeding commissioner will also have to find a way to alter the system for determining competitive balance picks. “The Cardinals are very well run,” says one GM, “but they always have two picks before a lot of lesser teams get their second selection. It really doesn’t make sense.”
Small market teams need amateur and international talent to develop and offset the natural predatory nature of free agency. Can Tampa sign David Price when he becomes a free agent after the 2015 season? Not likely. Price is a premium pitcher who eight years after being drafted by the Rays has the right to get what he can get; similarly, eight years after being drafted by the Red Sox, Jacoby Ellsbury played seven seasons in Boston, helped the Red Sox win two World Series, all for approximately what he will make per season with the Yankees, which the Red Sox would take every time for whoever they draft this June.
But the system now rewards big market teams like the Astros, Cubs and Mets for not winning with better access to amateur talent than the Rays, who have won 90 games five of the last six seasons.