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Baseball’s economic system is broken

Wednesday’s Say Hey, Baseball looks at Jeff Passan’s feature on MLB’s economic system.

San Diego Padres v San Francisco Giants Getty

Jeff Passan wrote an important feature for Yahoo! Sports titled, “Here’s why baseball’s economic system might be broken.” You should read it! This will still be here when you get back.

Done? Let’s get to it, then. Passan’s feature is important, as stated, but it also doesn’t go far enough. There is no “might” about it: MLB’s economic system is absolutely broken. It was broken before there was a union and ownership did whatever it wanted to whomever it wanted. It was broken after the formation of a union, even when free agency was finally agreed upon. Following the 1990 lockout and the 1994 strike that were informed by the collusion of the 80s, it looked like baseball’s economics were at least trending in the right, unbroken direction, but ownership quietly spent the last 20-plus years trying to undo those gains, and [looks around at the 2017-2018 offseason] they’ve succeeded in those aims.

The owners had help, of course, as Passan points out the MLBPA has seemingly lost its way, no longer battling for economic gains in the same way it used to in the glory days of Marvin Miller and Donald Fehr. The owners, of course, pounced on this lack of direction, and succeeded at squeezing the players out of higher draft payouts, higher international bonuses, and now, with free agency the one avenue left to get paid, they’ve focused on limiting free agent dollars, too, citing them as bad business.

Free agency is a bad deal, sure, as players are essentially being paid, in many cases, for past production. Except that’s a feature of the system, not a bug, as the years of team control are already meant to protect teams against having to pay players who might not produce; players who haven’t proven themselves to be reliable sources of value.

Owners don’t want to pay draft picks huge bonuses in case they don’t pan out. They don’t want to sign international players to lucrative deals in case they don’t play as well as hoped. They don’t want to pay players much before free agency, because those players haven’t done enough to prove they’re going to repeat their success, and they don’t want to pay the proven-commodity free agents, because now they’re too old to safely invest in. It’s weird how there is always an excuse to not pay the players, and that each excuse benefits the owners, who have collecively seen franchise values jump from $18 billion to $46 billion over the last five years but also can’t seem to find the dollars to do things like, say, hold on to productive players with reasonable contracts like Andrew McCutchen, or bother to keep relatively inexpensive stars like Marcell Ozuna around.

It’s not just the supposed “small-market” teams, either: The Yankees currently can’t (read: won’t) add Yu Darvish despite a rotation that can use him, because they don’t want to go over the luxury tax. That means they need to clear payroll to sign a major free agent. The Yankees. The team that makes half-a-billion dollars in revenue per year, worried about a higher tax rate on the comparatively few dollars they would be over the luxury tax threshold.

There is no “might” about it: MLB’s economic system is broken. It has been broken, and it will continue to be broken so long as ownership goes unchallenged by the MLBPA and the public relations battle continues to result in fans rooting for the success of billionaires over the players without whom the sport you love would not exist. The MLBPA has work to do to repair their image and begin to fix this economic disparity, but all of us have work to do, too, on improving how we think about baseball’s economics and the systems that have allowed things to break to this degree.