Andris Biedrins still makes me mad. Not as a basketball player, and not because he made me realize my severe limitations as an amateur talent scout (dude was so promising for a while, I swear), but because he was a huge part of an NBA trade in 2013. The Utah Jazz wanted a broken, valueless player making $9 million specifically because he made so much money.
People explained it to me back then. They’ve explained it several times over since then. Expiring contracts help a team’s salary cap expand the following year, but they’re ... look, I almost get it. But I don’t really get it. I don’t care to get it. When I see salary cap wonks talk about the kinds of players that would need to be included in a basketball trade to make it work, it makes me roll my eyes and thank the stars that I’m a baseball fan. In baseball, it’s simple: Both teams are trying to trade for equal value.
Rather, it used to be simple. I miss those old days.
The basketball trades are here. While we’re a long way from a team acquiring Vernon Wells on purpose so they have more money to spend the following year, there sure is a lot more careful reading and CPA parsing that needs to happen to evaluate a trade.
Take the Dodgers/Braves trade, which exchanged all sorts of highly paid players back and forth and worked out like this:
Braves get: A pitcher they plan to use and a utility infielder.
Dodgers get: Scores of millions that are spread out over two years instead of one.
The Giants traded Matt Moore, a pitcher they were expecting to use, because they wanted money to spend in free agency, and they traded Denard Span, an outfielder they weren’t expecting to use, because they wanted to overpay a veteran third baseman and not spend money in free agency. It’s ... complicated. Andrew Baggarly wrote up the Evan Longoria deal for the Athletic, and here’s how it read:
Longoria’s contribution to the CBT is $13.6 million because he signed his six-year, $100 million extension after the 2012 season and his existing salaries for 2013-16 get folded into that calculation. So it’s not $100 million divided by six years but $130 million divided by 10. Span’s contribution to the CBT is $10.33 million. The difference to offset the two salaries is $3.26 million. Ah, but! Any money the Rays send to the Giants to pay down Longoria’s contract is spread evenly among the five remaining guaranteed years on his deal. So it’s not a matter of Tampa Bay sending $3.26 million in order to offset the deal for CBT purposes. It would be $3.26 million times five, or $16.335 million. If the AP’s figures are accurate, the Rays sending $14.5 million make it pretty close to a wash.
Any discussion of a trade that includes the words “$3.26 million times five” is a sign that baseball trades are exponentially more annoying than they used to be.
This is all happening because of the Competitive Balance Tax, which is a de facto salary cap. The Dodgers, Giants, and Yankees are vocally, desperately, and creatively staying under it. It isn’t just trades that aren’t fun. The offseason is far less fun. The Giants could really, really use Lorenzo Cain. He’s a perfect fit for them. He’s a right-handed center fielder with plus defense, and he would improve most lineups.
But Cain would make it so that the Giants will need to pay a 50-percent surcharge this offseason and next on dollars spent over the limit, which would limit their ability to add anyone else, but they could reset the penalties to 20 percent if they stay under, but they’ll still lose a second-round pick for Cain and, oh, they’ll lose a fifth-round pick, too, because they’re over that fake salary cap right now, and they’ll lose international bonus money, which would represent nearly a third of their allocated ...
Just gimme the player. Like the old days, consarnit. This player would fit my rich team, and they have the money to spend on him. Just ... just gimme.
Instead, Cain (and Mike Moustakas, Greg Holland, Eric Hosmer, Wade Davis, George Brett, Steve Balboni, and U.L. Washington) has to deal with all of these teams that could use him but don’t want to give up their chance at a young prospect, who could turn into a super-cheap young player, which would allow teams to save even more money. And if those teams go over the fake salary cap, they’ll have even fewer chances at those young prospects because of subsection a) (paragraph 6) (revision 4.1).
This would all be whining from the fan of a big-market team if this helped the small-market teams sign these players. But it doesn’t! Like heck are the small-market teams interested in giving up their draft picks, especially if they aren’t protected. The Giants and Dodgers staying away from Lorenzo Cain isn’t helping the Twins and A’s. The lack of competition isn’t driving down the price enough for them to jump in.
No, because of the CBT and draft pick compensation, all of those rich teams are now super interested in the young and cheap players. They always were, of course, but they’re more interested than ever because of the fake salary cap and the penalties that come with free agents. They’re hoarding their own young players, and they’re driving up the prices to acquire others. If anything, the increased league-wide focus on cheap youngsters hurts small-market teams more than large-market teams. It was a lot more fun when the rich teams would part with their unproven players more willingly to acquire high-salaried players.
Of course, while it’s obnoxious for fans, the real victims are the players. The free agents are spinning around, wondering what’s happening. From Buster Olney:
“I told you last year that this was an unequivocal disaster for the union,” one agent said this week. “All you need to do is look at the trends.”
Trades are more complicated, the offseason is more boring, and teams can’t improve their rosters exactly how they would want to because of the rules. But owners are saving money. That’s the only thing that matters, which means it’s probably here to stay.
Mike Moustakas was probably expecting something close to $100 million after a career high in home runs; he might get a one-year deal to get back on the market next year. Carlos Santana got lucky that a big-market team with a protected first-rounder decided that this was the year they were going to spend money and contend. Without the Phillies, Santana was probably going to wait until January. Which meant Yonder Alonso would have waited until January. This cascading effect is happening with Cain and Moustakas right now.
If the worst effect of the owners’ cash grab were a more boring offseason, it would be a nitpicky complaint from someone who spends too much time following baseball. But the worst effect is that there’s going to be labor strife because of this. The players decided not to play when they were threatened with a salary cap. This fake salary cap is working so well that the next CBA is going to be carnage. The owners won’t want to give it up. The players will be desperate to ditch it.
The good news is that the MLBPA can still bargain away the rights of amateurs who aren’t in the union, which means this can all be traded for an international draft and other ways to save the owners millions, while hurting teenagers and their families. Phew. But until then, we’ll have to deal with the arcane rules and a fake salary cap, and baseball will be that much less fun.
I prefer more fun, really.