Monday, August 2, 2010

All sports need balance, the time has come for MLB salary cap AND floor

On Saturday, as The Major League Baseball trading deadline came and went, the New York Yankees made three trades, picking up Lance Berkman, Kerry Wood and Austin Kearns. None of these moves was earth-shattering or even terribly significant. Berkman is an ex-All Star in the twilight of an excellent career. Woods is a former phenom who is now 33 and was pitching to an ERA of 6.30 in Cleveland on those rare occasions when he wasn’t on the Disabled List. Kearns is a journeyman outfielder who can catch a fly ball and throw out an occasional runner.

The Dodgers picking up Ted Lilly—although they may have made their move too late—is more significant. Certainly the earlier trades that moved Cliff Lee to Texas; Roy Oswalt to Philadelphia and Dan Haren (although that may be too late too) were far more significant than anything the Yankees did.

Of course the Yankees made these moves already having the best record in baseball. They were moves made because perhaps each of the three will win one game in the next two months or get one key hit or one key out in postseason. That would be enough because the Yankees didn’t have to give up an important prospect in any of the three moves. All they cost was money and for the Yankees, buying players like Berkman, Wood and Kearns is like buying one of the railroads on a Monopoly board. They’ll wait until this winter to buy Park Place—Lee—and keep on going from there.

This is not, by any stretch, a rant against the Yankees. Even though I’m a lifelong Mets fan I’ve never hated the Yankees and I actually sort of liked them when Joe Torre was the manager because I like Joe Torre. The current rules of baseball say the Yankees can spend whatever they want to spend and the Yankees business plan, brilliantly executed in recent years, makes it possible for them to spend whatever they choose to spend.

The problem is the system. It needs to be fixed during the next Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations. For years, the baseball union has been adamant about not agreeing to a salary cap. Of course that same union was adamant for years about drug-testing and we all know now how that worked out for baseball.

I understand the principle of being opposed to a salary cap. I also understand the principle of opposing drug-testing when there is no evidence that someone has used drugs. It is a violation of one’s rights and freedoms. It is also, in 2010, an absolute necessity in the world we live in just as the humiliating experience we all go through anytime we get on an airplane is also an absolute necessity.

There are salary caps in football, basketball and hockey. I don’t see very many players starving as a result of them. The NFL is about to go through what will be an angry, protracted negotiation with its union because for the first time in a long time the union has a leader—DeMaurice Smith—who is more than willing to wade in and do battle with the commissioner and the owners. But no one is going to debate whether the salary cap should continue to exist. The battleground will be what percentage of revenues the players get and what percentage the owners get. Put simply, the owners want more.

Hockey is a better and more balanced sport since Gary Bettman was willing to sacrifice a season five years ago and it can be argued that the salary cap saved the NBA back in the 1980s although it now needs considerable tweaking with a CBA negotiation coming up there too.

The issue has never really reached the table in baseball. That’s because Don Fehr was smarter and tougher than any commissioner, any owner and any negotiator sent forth by ownership for many, many years. Every time the owners tried to play hard ball on any front, Fehr sat back and waited for the courts or an arbitrator to rule in favor of the players because they always did. Whether Fehr was the smartest lawyer of all time or the owners hired some of the dumbest lawyers of all time is hard to say, but Fehr and the union were undefeated.

That’s why they were able to hold off drug-testing until public embarrassments forced them to give in, first to limited testing and, finally, after the 2005 Congressional hearing—the famous Mark McGwire, ‘I’m not hear to talk about the past,’ testimony not to mention Rafael Palmeiro’s outright lying and Sammy Sosa forgetting how to speak English—more frequent testing.

That’s also why there’s never been any serious talk about a salary cap. Revenue sharing was the compromise agreed to years ago and it HAS helped. The Minnesota Twins, targeted for extinction by the owners nine years ago, are now flourishing in a wonderful new ballpark, contending every year and have a payroll of just under $100 million. They’ve even signed Joe Mauer to an extension that should keep him in Minnesota through the peak years of an already-great career.

The Tampa Bay Rays won a pennant in 2008 and are chasing the Yankees with great vigor right now. The Cincinnati Reds have one of baseball’s best young teams. The well-managed small market teams can contend. The poorly managed small market teams (Kansas City, Pittsburgh) don’t. The Orioles and Cubs are just poorly managed.

But it’s not enough. The Yankees can’t buy a championship every year, but they can buy contending. They’ve missed the playoffs once since the strike of 1994 and their payroll just keeps growing and growing—as do their revenues. The Twins can contend but win the World Series? It doesn’t seem likely. The Brewers made the playoffs a couple of years back but can they, realistically, win the whole thing? The Texas Rangers DID rent Lee and will make postseason this year but can they go deep into postseason? Where will they be next year when Lee is pitching for the Yankees and the Angels go out and pick up two key free agents?

All sports need balance. The Saints winning The Super Bowl was great for the NFL and the Chicago Black Hawks—a big market team, sure, but they hadn’t won a title in almost 50 years—winning the Stanley Cup was good for hockey. Change and variety are good.

No one is proposing that the Yankees be crippled or cease being a dynasty. Their popularity is also good for baseball: they sell tickets and move TV ratings, especially when they play the Red Sox, who just happen to have baseball’s second biggest payroll.

But the time has come for both a salary cap and a salary FLOOR. The Yankees should have to think twice not so much before signing Lee but before throwing an extra $10 million or so at three marginal players who might make them just enough better to win again this year. The Royals and Pirates should be forced to plow ALL their revenue-sharing money into payroll—ALL OF IT—and every team should have a minimum payroll that gives it a chance to compete. If an owner can’t afford that payroll, especially when aided by revenue sharing, make him sell the team. Owning a baseball team isn’t an inalienable right.

This is the time for the owners to make this move. Fehr has retired. The union has finally been dinged by the public embarrassment over drug-testing. The owners need to go public with this battle because for once they will actually be right. They will not just be trying to grab more money they will be trying to bring balance to their sport.

The time to talk about a salary cap and ring hands and blame the union is over. The time to do to it is here and now. It can be called, ‘The Austin Kearns Rule.’ Has a ring to it I think.


bevo said...

I the Washington Post should have a wage pool for its editorial staff. Indeed, every paper should have a wage pool.

I don't know what your salary is, but I know you will be lucky to earn half of that amount. Of course, the WaPo could always dump your salary and hire four writers who a lot younger and a lot cheaper.

Perhaps the Rockville Squat and Shop wants a name writer on its masthead?

I really enjoy an argument from someone who benefits from an essentially open labor market who wants to impose a close labor market for others.

Tim said...

Bevo -- if the WaPost was in a business where it relied on the other papers to maximize the effectiveness of its abilities, then maybe your argument would make some semblance of sense where there would be a collective cap.

And I think I remember that you are from somewhere in Texas, though can't remember whether its Texas, or Texas Tech or whoever you are a fan of. I'll assume, in your argument, they should be able to have as many scholarships to give in the sports it 'sponsors' as much as they see fit, right?

Anonymous said...

If there is a salary cap in MLB (though I see the need, don't see it happening) players can take their talents to a different baseball league if they see fit, if they don't think they are maximizing their pay. Just like basketball players can go to Europe, Asia or anywhere else if the market dictates its in their best interest. Josh Childress is the only player I remember not liking the rules and leaving, and no one followed his lead.

Anonymous said...

I doubt the owners will ever agree to a salary floor. I'll believe it when I see it.

I would rather see the relegation system used as in English soccer. Move the Royals, Pirates an Orioles to AAA next year, take their revenue and give it to the best AAA teams. Then we'll see if KC, Pit and Bal have any interest in competently managing their clubs.

I know that has about as much chance of happening as the sky falling. But it would be fun.

John L said...

John, nothing on Stuart Appleby's 59? Granted, it was on a par 70 course, but still thought it was worth noting.

John Matthew IV said...

Fay Vincent was on THE FAN 590 in Toronto recently. He said that a salary cap in baseball is many years away. I hope so.

I don't want teams to have to make trades based on salary caps. When I hear discussions of other sports it is all about capology. I want to hear about trades made for sport reason.

And the NHLPA will soon be headed by Don Fehr and he may well lobby for removal of their salary cap in the next CBA negotiation.

Love you, Junior, but you are wrong here.

sanford said...

It is difficult for small market teams to keep good players for a long time. But the Twins have been a small market team for a long time and some how they find talent and are able to challenge. Tampa has been able to find talent lately and challenge the Yankees. I believe they took two of three from this weekend. Once a team gets into the series it is a crapshoot. The lowly Marlins have won twice. The Cards came out of no where and one. I do agree there should be a floor. The bottom feeders are getting plenty of money.

A salary cap certainly hasn't helped teams in the NFL. Yes a team like the Saints comes up and wins a superbowl. But it was more of a matter of good scouting, coaching etc. Look at the Lions. The salary cap has done wonders for them. The Browns are not much better.

In hockey the Black Hawks have lost 8 players because of the salary cap. Some of that was due to Dale Tallon screwing up with some paper work.

Smart management will do well salary cap or no.

John Graves said...


In the last 20 years, baseball has had 13 different teams win the World Series, including Toronto, Anaheim, Florida, and Arizona. I think you're trying to create a problem where one doesn't exist.

The Yankees and Red Sox are always in contention, but they don't always win. A salary cap may not create any better environment (i.e. see Colts and Patriots in the NFL).

People love to pretend that there is a problem with parity in baseball. The problem doesn't exist at the top; it exists at the bottom. If anything, a spending floor should be created to keep teams like the Pirates and Royals from cashing it in at the beginning of the season. Baseball can get better, but a salary cap isn't the way to do it.

Paul said...


I agree with John Graves. The NBA has a salary cap (albeit a complex one) and yet only seven different teams have won championships in the last 20 years. Not too competitive. While I think a salary cap could help and a salary floor would also help, neither are a panacea for the league. Teams (even the Yankees) have to realize you build from the draft and stockpiling talent in the farm system. Even the Yankees can't buy a pennant every year. Remember when they got Mike Mussina and everyone crowned them champs that next year? Didn't work out. Buying a bunch of great players can win a championship, but the Yankee teams that won four rings in the latter half of the 90s was one built from a strong farm system and smart trades as well as from store-bought stars. Between 1982 and 1995, the Yankees, enjoying a similar advantage as they do today, were a joke. "Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps."

Anonymous said...

Baseball doesn't want a salary cap. MLB makes more money when the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers are in first place -- in the playoffs -- in the world series. (They would make lots more money if the cubs were in there but let's not get nuts.)

Parity would be bad for baseball. It only works for football.

bisonaudit said...

As we saw with Florida baseball is starting to get serious about how small market teams spend their revenue sharing. They need to do more there. I'm not in favor of a salary cap and floor. With the long development horizon for baseball players there are ways other than free agency to build a winning franchise. I think teams, especially small market teams, need the flexibility to spend money where they think it will do the most good. That doesn't mean putting it in your pocket, but the solution isn't forcing Kansas City to spend on major league free agents in order to make a salary floor. The solution is 1) better over sight of where revenue sharing is spent 2) more effective management and 3) a third team in New York.

Pete said...

Even as a die-hard Yankee fan I would be open to a salary floor and cap, not that I think it will happen. That might take a work stoppage and this is a terrible time for baseball to contemplate that.

As I look at the floor/cap it's like looking at immigration policy. The floor for me is like border security, which in my mind is hard to enforce and is at the political whim of the President. The cap is like companies that hire undocumented workers. It's a mess. I come down on establishing a floor first and weeding out the badly managed teams whose owners either don't know how to compete or don't have the resources to invest in a better product (that will bring in more revenue). One could argue that both floor and cap can come at the same time, but it will require a very messy battle.

Also, your comment about airport security screening being a necessary humiliating experience is just simply a cop-out. We could argue about this till we are blue-in-the-face, but yours is a liberal's view and mine would be a person's slightly right of center. There are many things we could do that would make airport screening much easier to tolerate.

ARCstats said...

Too many people, including you John, think that the salary paid to an individual equals their level of talent. How's AJ Burnett working out for the Yankees? How's all the Redskins signings panned out over the Snyder years?

It's not the Yankees fault they play in New York where location combined with the franchise legacy allows them to generate more income than any other baseball team. If they want to spend and over spend for players, let them. The money buys the player - not his future numbers.

Anonymous said...

ARCstats -- that is what I think is a fundamental problem....teams like the Yankees (and a few others) can make mistake after mistake by overpaying for players, finally hit a few right, continue to win and make money. They are allowed the flexibility of screwing up, while many many make a single mistake or two and are relegated to another 5 years of horrendous returns.

And another issue -- yep, NY Boston and other large markets do seem to make the game just as popular as ever, but the reality is that without fans in other markets the game will continue to drop. Who'd have thunk the NBA would be ultimately more popular than MLB, which it either already is or about to be?

John Graves said...


The NBA may be more popular than MLB right now, but do you really think it is because of the salary cap? There is far less parity in the NBA than there is in MLB. MLB's problems stem primarily from having no superstar players that can serve as the face of MLB who aren't under suspicion of using PEDs. The salary cap has no bearing on the popularity of the NBA vs. MLB.

Also, if you can give ONE example of your theory of small market teams overpaying for a player and then crippling their franchise because of it, maybe I'll consider it a valid argument against teams like the Red Sox and Yankees. However, I'm afraid there isn't an example that exists. There's a lot of theory floating around here regarding the effects of a salary cap, but no results in other sports to back it up. MLB has as much parity as the NBA and the NFL...probably more. Well-run teams with good owners will perform well on the field, regardless of the existence of a salary cap. That's true in all major sports.

Anonymous said...

If I take two companies and provide one with $200M and a the second with $48M to develop talent, isn't the more well funded organization going to dominate? When is the last time that a proven talent went to the Marlins because he wanted to compete for a championship? I agree that well run teams with good owners with perform well on the field. But in my opinion, that is an argument FOR a level financial playing field, not against it.

Rich Galen said...

Maybe I missed this, but the WashPost, unlike the MLB, doesn't have an anti-trust exemption. They have to compete with other news organizations.

I think John is correct. If any owner is going to take the shared revenue money and build a larger house in the Hamptons so he can hire his very own consierge doctor, then he should be drummed out of the league and the team sold to someone who wants to improve the game.