Hey, did you know MLB has a lockout going on?
That was sarcasm, in case you didn’t already guess. We’ve been seeing it coming since the last CBA five years ago, so its arrival shouldn’t come as a surprise. There are the usual grumbles of “billionaires vs. millionaires,” complaints about the lack of a salary cap, and all the stuff that make ESPN and the Athletic (and BD, LOL) salivate because content, that’s why.
What should be of interest to Pirates fans?
Players feel, with the emergence of analytics within front offices, that fewer and fewer second- and third-tier players are getting paid when they finally become free agents after six years of major league service time, which is often when a player turns 30 or very close to it. In general, players would like to be paid more at younger ages because that’s when they are in their prime. The system also favors keeping players in the minor leagues for several weeks extra to slow down their major league service time. Players hate that. Additionally, they feel the cycle of teams rebuilding (aka tanking) is limiting payrolls. They would like some guardrails within the system to prevent those cycles. One good thing for the players: As long as there is no salary cap, the system will always pay the best of the best — something the league likes to emphasize. Owners haven’t even offered a hard cap during negotiations.
The Pirates have two players, Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes, who, if they keep progressing as they have, will be legit stars. Stars like to get paid. Reynolds heads into arbitration in 2023 at age 28 and free agency in 2027 at age 32; Hayes’s dates are a year later, with his ages at 27 and 31. The players’ union would dearly love to get rid of arbitration altogether, and I’m sure Reynolds is very interested to see how that goes, as is his agency, CAA Sports. I’m also sure that when Reynolds was tendered this week, Cherington promised him, fellow tendee Kevin Newman, and Hayes that good things were afoot on the 2022 Pirate Ship.
This lockout, though, is different. In 1994, the last significant work stoppage, baseball was still hovering as America’s most popular sport. These days, it’s far outpaced by the NFL and NBA. As Bucs Dugout site manager Darren Yuvan and I discussed a few weeks ago, MLB is no longer attracting the best high school and college athletes, despite the excellent salaries in a sport that has an overall much lower rate of debilitating injuries. Back in the day, even people who didn’t follow baseball could name a couple of players off the top of their heads. Now, there is no “face of baseball,” no LeBron James or Aaron Rodgers-type figure. You don’t even see a current Pirate in Edgar Snyder commercials anymore. It’s hard to make people care about a sport that’s increasingly become an “OK, boomer” thing.
In Pittsburgh, it’s even harder, particularly since it seems to be firmly believed that incompetents are still running the team. I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again, and I’ll keep saying it until shown otherwise: if Bob Nutting didn’t want to win, he would have never hired Ben Cherington. I’ve heard more than the usual complaints about how cheap Nutting is when the Texas Rangers, one of the few teams that were worse than the Bucs last year, just went out and dropped over half a billion dollars for the likes of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien. However, the Rangers are in a very competitive division, and all that money is exactly zero guarantee that they’ll suddenly get better. You only have to look at the Mets to know that. It’s also not true that a winning team will put revenue-generating butts in seats. The Tampa Bay Rays know a thing or two about that.
The players’ union’s main theme seems to be “pay the young guys in their prime.” Bob Nutting isn’t the only MLB owner to hold onto a dollar until the eagle screams.
But what if you gave a lockout and no one cared?
That’s a legitimate danger these days.