At least one person thinks San Jose has a strong case against Major League Baseball

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Unfortunately that one person is ESPN’s legal analyst Lester Munson who, as we and many others have noted over the years, tends to get things pretty darn wrong pretty darn often. You won’t be shocked to hear that I feel like he’s off on this one too.

To be fair, he is half right. He analyzes Major League Baseball’s antitrust exemption and notes just how anomalous it is. He also notes that, in the right case, the Supreme Court would probably overturn the old Federal Baseball Club vs. National League case which gave us the antitrust exemption in the first place. It’s really a piece or garbage precedent. Where he’s wrong is in thinking that this is the right case.

As I mentioned the other day, the biggest hurdle to San Jose’s suit is getting its arguments heard on the merits in the first place. That’s because, in my view and the view of many others, San Jose lacks legal standing to assert a claim against Major League Baseball and hasn’t alleged any actual damages, as opposed to speculative ones. San Jose claims it will lose money if the A’s are not relocated there. It has made no allegation, however, that it actually has been damaged by any act of Major League Baseball. Munson makes no mention of this whatsoever.

He does mention the American Needle vs. National Football League, case, however. This is one that should come up a lot in talking about the San Jose case, so here’s the quick and dirty: American Needle made NFL-logo merchandise for various teams. The NFL then said, nope, all merch will now be made by Reebok and Reebok only. American Needle sued, saying that the NFL’s anticompetitive act — 32 teams and the league conspiring to shut out competitors to Reebok — violated the law and caused its existing contracts to go bye-bye.  American Needle won that case, with the Supreme Court pounding the NFL’s claim to antitrust protection 9-0.

Here’s the difference, though: American Needle had a contract with NFL teams. It had a vested financial interest in doing business with these guys. Then the NFL came in and said “sorry, you’re shut out.” It had something then lost something by virtue of the NFL’s action.  San Jose has no similar interest or damage. It has a contract with the A’s that gives the A’s the option to purchase some land. The terms of that contract are entirely fulfillable without MLB doing anything. The A’s have paid San Jose the $50,000 the contract asks for. The A’s have not, by any report whatsoever, moved or attempted to move to actually buy land in San Jose, let alone move the team there. More importantly, the A’s are not a plaintiff in this suit. If they were I think it would be a totally different ballgame and MLB would be in big trouble. But that hasn’t happened.

There is always a chance a judge will go off the reservation and make a surprising ruling. As such, sure, there is a chance that San Jose’s suit goes farther than I think it will (and man, I hope it will).  But that’s pretty unlikely. And no matter the odds, Munson makes no mention of Major League Baseball’s possible defenses at all, let alone that they have some pretty stout defenses. There is not one passage in his column noting that, just maybe, the San Jose lawsuit isn’t a slam dunk. If a first year law student provided an analysis like Munson’s on a civil procedure exam he’d probably get a D, at best.

If you just read Munson’s analysis and nothing else — and given that he writes for the biggest sports media company on the planet, many probably have — you’d get a pretty skewed idea of what’s going on here. And the fact that ESPN continues to be cool with that sort of thing from him is frankly amazing.

MLB Network airs segment listing “good” and “bad” $100 million-plus contracts

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On Wednesday evening, Charlie Marlow of KTVI FOX 2 News St. Louis posted a couple of screencaps from a segment MLB Network aired about $100 million-plus contracts that have been signed. The list of “bad” contracts, unsurprisingly, is lengthier than the list of “good” contracts.

As Mike Gianella of Baseball Prospectus pointed out, it is problematic for a network owned by Major League Baseball to air a segment criticizing its employees for making too much seemingly unearned money. There’s a very clear conflict of interest, so one is certainly not getting a fair view of the situation. MLB, of course, can do what it wants with its network, but it can also be criticized. MLB Network would never air a similar segment in which it listed baseball’s “good” and “bad” owners and how much money they’ve undeservedly taken. Nor would MLB Network ever run a segment naming the hundreds of players who are not yet eligible for arbitration whose salaries are decided for them by their teams, often making the major league minimum ($545,000) or just above it. Similarly, MLB Network would also never think of airing a segment in which the pay of minor league players, many of whom make under $10,000 annually, is highlighted.

We’re now past the halfway point in January and many free agents still remain unsigned. It’s unprecedented. A few weeks ago, I looked just at the last handful of years and found that, typically, six or seven of the top 10 free agents signed by the new year. We’re still at two of 10 — same as a few weeks ago — and that’s only if you consider Carlos Santana a top-10 free agent, which is debatable. It’s a complex issue, but part of it certainly is the ubiquity of analytics in front offices, creating homogeneity in thinking. A consequence of that is everyone now being aware that big free agent contracts haven’t panned out well; it’s a topic of conversation that everyone can have and understand now. Back in 2010, I upset a lot of people by suggesting that Ryan Howard’s five-year, $125 million contract with the Phillies wouldn’t pan out well. Those people mostly cited home runs and RBI and got mad when I cited WAR and wOBA and defensive metrics. Now, many of those same people are wary of signing free agent first baseman Eric Hosmer and they now cite WAR, wOBA, and the various defensive metrics.

The public’s hyper-sensitivity to the viability of long-term free agent contracts — thanks in part to segments like the aforementioned — is a really bad trend if you’re a player, agent, or just care about labor in general. The tables have become very much tilted in favor of ownership over labor over the last decade and a half. Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs pointed out in March 2015 that the players’ share of total league revenues peaked in 2002 at 56 percent, but declined all the way to 38 percent in 2014. The current trend of teams signing their talented players to long-term contract extensions before or during their years of arbitration eligibility — before they have real leverage — as well as teams abstaining from signing free agents will only serve to send that percentage further down.

Craig has written at great length about the rather serious problem the MLBPA has on its hands. Solving this problem won’t be easy and may require the threat of a strike, or actually striking. As Craig mentioned, that would mean getting the players all on the same page on this issue, which would require some work. MLB hasn’t dealt with a strike since 1994 and it’s believed that it caused a serious decline in interest among fans, so it’s certainly something that would get the owners’ attention. The MLBPA may also need to consider replacing union head Tony Clark with someone with a serious labor background. Among the issues the union could focus on during negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement: abolishing the draft and getting rid of the arbitration system. One thing is for sure: the players are not in a good spot now, especially when the league has its own network on which it propagandizes against them.