Last week, SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee wrote a terrific article explaining how baseball’s competitive balance tax has led to a slow, boring offseason. For the uninitiated, baseball teams pay a 17.5 percent luxury tax for going over the threshold. If those teams stay over for a second, third, and fourth consecutive year, those penalties rise to 30, 40, and 50 percent, respectively. Those thresholds for 2017-21 are $195 million, $197 million, $206 million, $208 million, and $210 million, respectively.
The Associated Press reported that the Dodgers were billed $36.2 million in luxury tax, while the Yankees had to pay $15.7 million. That was followed by the Giants at $4.1 million, the Tigers at $3.7 million, and the Nationals at $1.45 million.
Teams are now making trades to ensure that they don’t inch any closer to the penalty. Brisbee cites the recent trade between the Rays and Giants that saw Evan Longoria head to San Francisco while Denard Span, Christian Arroyo, Matt Krook, and Stephen Woods went to Tampa Bay. The Rays agreed to pay down $14.5 million of the $88 million remaining on Longoria’s contract, which helps the Giants avoid the CBT, as did accepting Span and his remaining salary in the deal. The Matt Kemp trade between the Dodgers and Braves was another example of teams making a trade primarily to avoid the CBT. The Braves got Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, and cash. The Dodgers got Kemp. The Braves then immediately designated Gonzalez for assignment. The salaries were essentially a wash, but for the Dodgers, they spread the money they owed over two seasons instead of one, greatly improving their ability to stay under the CBT.
So, the CBT is making trades boring and unsatisfying. If you’re a Braves fan, maybe you were excited to see a star player in Gonzalez, even if he’s injury-prone and at the end of his career. Instead, he was simply dropped off at the curb right after the trade and all the Braves have left from the deal are second- and third-tier retreads. If you’re a Rays fan, perhaps you wonder why the club gave up Longoria, the best player in franchise history. Due to the esoteric rules, it’s more difficult than it’s ever been for a casual fan to understand why a trade was made.
But it’s not just trades that are affected by the CBT. Free agency has been greatly affected as well. As Brisbee points out, only a handful of free agents have signed big contracts since the offseason began. First baseman Carlos Santana got $60 million over three years from the Phillies. Shortstop Zack Cozart signed a three-year, $38 million deal with the Angels, and pitcher Tyler Chatwood inked the same deal with the Cubs. The Angels also signed Shohei Ohtani from Japan, but he’ll get a relatively meager $2.315 million signing bonus and then go through the arbitration process. First baseman Yonder Alonso agreed to a two-year, $16 million contract with the Indians. Most of the other players to have signed by this date are relief pitchers: Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Tommy Hunter, Juan Nicasio, Pat Neshek, Joe Smith, Anthony Swarzak, Steve Cishek, Luke Gregerson, etc.
There just hasn’t been that much money going around in free agency this offseason and part of the reason why is teams wanting to avoid getting close to or exceeding the luxury tax and also wanting to avoid having to give up draft picks as compensation for signing players. Lots of really good players are still free agents and we are almost into 2018. Those players include Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Lance Lynn. With the exception of Darvish and Martinez, the players on that list rejected qualifying offers and will require draft pick compensation.
Brisbee suggests that when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated, players will be “desperate to ditch” the CBT while owners will fight to keep it. It is quite possible that, in an effort to get rid of the CBT, the union will make concessions elsewhere, perhaps on international players or minor leaguers (who don’t have union representation). As of right now, though, we’re enduring one of the most boring offseasons we’ve had in quite some time.