Craig Calcaterra

Jacob deGrom

Club renewals of pre-arbitration players feel wrong. But what’s the alternative?

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In the past week or two we’ve seen a handful of instances in which clubs renewing the contracts of pre-arbitration players created some controversy. Gerrit Cole was notably upset that the Pirates only gave him a tiny raise and, at some point, allegedly threatened to reduce his salary. Jacob deGrom, out of protest, refused to sign his renewed deal with the Mets. Yesterday we learned that Brad Boxberger, Jake Odorizzi, and Kevin Kiermaier of the Rays likewise refused to sign their renewals.

These protests are symbolic, of course. Since the club has the power to dictate the salary of players not yet arbitration-eligible, the players’ signatures are superfluous. Cole, deGrom, Boxberger, Odorizzi and Keirmaier aren’t able to make the clubs change their minds simply by refusing to sign. That’s part of the deal of having such little service time.

The dynamic is still an interesting one, however. It’s understandable that players the caliber of Cole, deGrom and Keirmaier are upset that they’re making so little and that their raises are so small, but what number wouldn’t upset them? I don’t ask that rhetorically, in a “Pfft! They’ll NEVER be happy!” kind of way. I’m legitimately asking: if a $50,000 raise like deGrom received is an insult, what number wouldn’t be an insult? And if it’s a sliding scale, what should we take away from these disputes as observers?

I’m thinking here of Mookie Betts. The Red Sox gave him a raise. He said he was pleased with it and many in the media pointed to his bump as a better way for a club to handle the issue than the way the Pirates handled Cole’s raise. That it was better for creating goodwill. Betts’ raise: $52,000, or basically what deGrom got. It’s better than what the Pirates and Rays did but it’s the same as the Mets approach which still drew a protest from the player. It makes one think that it’s only a “better” strategy for the Red Sox to pursue in hindsight. Betts didn’t take issue, therefore the goodwill was created.

Which has to frustrate clubs to some degree. Indeed, I spoke with a club official this afternoon who expressed a similar uncertainty to that which I’m feeling about it all. What number do you write down for a player that won’t insult him? The club official noted that you could give some of these guys — like deGrom — a $5 million raise and he’d still be underpaid compared to most players who produce like he does, so what’s the number you do give him that won’t insult him? And, more to the point, what is the number you give him that still allows you to pay the veterans you need to fill out your roster? After all: low money for low-service time players is not just a thing because clubs are cheap. It’s also a dynamic that clubs count on for purposes of roster construction and setting payrolls.

It’s a fascinating dilemma. It feels wrong on some very basic level that some legitimately great players are underpaid. But what’s the alternative? At least within the realistic confines of the current CBA and the fact that teams simply aren’t going to pay rookies $10 million or whatever they’re truly worth. Especially at a time in the game’s history where younger and younger players are playing larger and larger roles in team success than they used to. Now that I think harder about it, I can’t help but feel that, however wrong this friction between quality of player and salary feels, it’s unsolvable in the current environment. There’s an element of subjectivity to it that defies an easy answer.

A little more cynically, it makes me feel like maybe the players — or their agents — have made the same observation and are using this uncertainty for purposes of tactical positioning. I don’t recall these sorts of protests arising out of renewals in the past, probably because it’s so hard to take an objective stand on such a subjective matter. But they’re happening now, in a year that the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is going to be negotiated. Is someone or a group of someones trying to draw more attention to just how much low-service-time players are boned in the current CBA? To put pre-arb salaries on the agenda in ways they’ve not been before? Certainly agents would have an interest in that becoming a greater priority. And for good reason, I must add. Just because something is tactical doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea.

It’s definitely worth watching. It’s one of many reminders that, when it comes to the CBA, it’s not just players versus owners. Sometimes, it’s big market owners versus small market owners too. Sometimes, as may be the case here, it’s players with a lot of service time versus players with little service time.

The Designated Hitter: a venerable idea of the 19th century

Library of Congress
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Whenever I fight with people over the designated hitter — a position which I don’t personally favor for subjective reasons but which I have come to accept as a useful and necessary innovation which should be universal — my opponents tend to focus on its “gimmicky” nature.

They talk about how it was invented in the early 1970s and was akin to other harebrained ideas of that somewhat unfortunate time in our nation’s creative consciousness. They allude to it in the same way people talk about frozen dinners, suspended ceilings, cheap polyester clothing and the Chevy Vega. Things which were temporarily useful but which, with hindsight, were properly seen as cheap and desperate strategies which ignored the lessons of history and which eschewed grand traditions.

A second line of defense is that while pitchers are demonstrably horrible hitters these days, such was not always the case. Rather, baseball has merely chosen not to emphasize pitchers hitting, in large part due to the advent of the designated hitter itself. If pitchers were required to hit, they contend, they would become better at it and no one would be advocating for the perpetuation, let alone the expansion, of the abominable designated hitter.

Neither of these contentions, however, is true. The DH is not some gimmick dreamed up by shortsighted members of the Me Generation and was not the cause of poor pitcher hitting. Rather, as Major League Baseball’s historian John Thorn writes today, the DH was conceived of and considered nearly 100 years before its adoption. For the very same reasons it was ultimately adopted in 1973 and still exists today: pitchers of the 19th century, just like pitchers today, couldn’t hit a lick.

Thorn dates the idea of a DH to 1891, when Pirates owner W.C. Temple and executive J. Walter Spalding discussed the matter, as memorialized in an article in Sporting Life. The two men differed on how, exactly, to get around pitchers hitting, but they certainly agreed on the need to do so:

Every patron of the game is conversant with the utter worthlessness of the average pitcher when he goes up to try and hit the ball. It is most invariably a trial, and an unsuccessful one at that. If fortune does favor him with a base hit it is ten to one that he is so winded in getting to first or second base on it that when he goes into the box it is a matter of very little difficulty to pound him all over creation.

Spalding was in favor of simply skipping the pitcher. Temple was in favor of a substitute hitter we today call the DH. For various reasons it was not adopted then. But just because it took another 82 years to come online doesn’t mean it was a gimmick and doesn’t mean it was a solution in search of a problem. Indeed, it was one of the few examples of an innovation implemented in the 1970s that was long overdue and which has stood the test of time.

I do not suspect that this will make DH-haters change their views on the matter. But they most certainly will have to change the justification for their views. Because contrary to what they so often say, when it comes to the DH, tradition is not on their side.

Giancarlo Stanton has a sore knee

Giancarlo Stanton
Associated Press
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There have been a host of minor aches and pains reported around baseball today. Outside of Jhonny Peralta, they’re all minor or, at least for now, are being characterized as such. As we noted this morning, take all of these reports with a grain of salt. Players will come back when they come back, they’ll be fine or they won’t be and the stuff said about it at the time of injury is to be discounted.

One minor ache and pain worth watching, I think, is Giancarlo Stanton‘s. Stanton didn’t make the Marlins’ trip to Viera to play the Nationals due to soreness in right knee.

The Marlins said that holding him back was just a precaution. And, of course, established veterans often don’t make road trips in the spring. But it is worth noting that the sore knee is the same one he had surgery on for bone chips back in 2012. The sort of thing that, even if it’s nothing now, you file away for later.