Wednesday, March 5, 2008

You'll Get Nothing And Like It

There have been a run of recent stories coming out of spring training highlighting the fact that young, team-controlled stars like Prince Fielder, Cole Hamels, and Nick Markakis have been complaining about having their contracts renewed at drastically below-market rates. While arguably unfair, the contract renewals are perfectly permissible under baseball's current system, which provides that players with less than three years of big-league experience have to play for whatever amount of money their team decides to give them, so long as it meets the league minimum. But these young guys (along with others like Jon Papelbon) have complained regardless.

The general press reaction to these complaints is pretty well encapsulated by King Kaufman's remark that:

Fielder, Hamels and any other young ballplayer who doesn't like the terms of his renewed contract should remind himself that he's operating under a system that was arrived at in collective bargaining, and it's a system that lavishly rewards those who make it through three years. It isn't exactly chicken feed in the first three, either. . . . Any young gun who doesn't like the bargain that was struck should take it up with the union, but of course they all stop complaining about the system once it starts working in their favor in Year 4.

(Link to article.) I think the basic thrust of Kaufman's argument, that these guys need to suck it up and stay quiet about their renewals, is correct, but just about everything else in the quote above is off base.

For starters, none of the specific players mentioned above participated in the collective bargaining that led to the creation or ratification of the current system. And, perhaps more importantly, rookie players in general were not really represented in that bargaining.

After all, the system was collectively "bargained" for by two groups with strong incentives to lessen the amount of money given to rookie players: the owners, who want to give players as little money as possible, and the union, whose team representatives are all experienced veterans who want to direct as much of the incoming money as possible to experienced veterans. At no point have rookies or minor leaguers had a real voice at the table. The result, unsurprisingly, was one in which the veterans obtained the right to be paid essentially whatever they can get, in return for allowing the owners a period of indentured servitude for rookie players.

Also, the fact that the league minimum salary is a lot higher than the average ditch-digger's salary also doesn't really matter. The rookies know that they are one ligament tear away--and maybe even one bad slump away--from being kept off the gravy train and left to fend for themselves. For a kid drafted right out of high school who thinks Sartre is a company that makes designer baseball caps, that might not be a particularly appealing option.

But, despite all of the above, there's no getting around the idea that these guys need to put a sock in it. Not because their complaints aren't valid as such, but because they represent the single most important market inefficiency that keeps the baseball rich from getting even richer. Without the ability to construct a team based around cheap, cost-specific young players, smaller market teams would be even harder-pressed to build a competitive roster, If every player costs exactly as much as he is worth, barring front-office idiocy of a Steinbrennerian order, the richest teams are going to be at a massive advantage.

So, sorry, guys. Hang in there for another year or two, and you'll be set. And in the meantime, just make the Annies pay for drinks to save some cash.

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