Craig Calcaterra

Rob Manfred
Associated Press

A reminder that baseball’s commissioner works for the owners

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Over the years I have noted, over and over again, that the position of Commissioner of Baseball is not what most people grew up thinking it is. The Commissioner is not an impartial or benevolent ruler. He does not preside over all of baseball seeking to maximize well being for all stakeholders.

Rather, the Commissioner is best thought of as the Chairman of the Board for the owners’ committee and his job, above all else, is to maximize their good fortune. Oh, sure, to do that he has to make sure the players don’t strike and the fans don’t leave and to that end there is an understandable balancing of interests involved. But at the end of the day, he gets fired if the owners are not happy and the thing that makes the owners unhappy above all else is not making the amount of money they think they should be making. From that, all else flows.

Even the people who understand that in theory tend to forget that as time goes on. They complain about Major League Baseball pursuing a policy — like, say, things related to television — that does not benefit fans as much as it enriches owners and act as if they have been misrepresented by the person they mistakenly think is their advocate and leader. For this reason I like to point out examples of the Commissioner acting within his true role whenever possible. When he’s not shaking hands wth baseball luminaries at photo ops or when he’s not sitting behind the bunting at the World Series, acting as First Fan as opposed to the duly-elected representative of baseball owners.

Like today, in this excellent article from Tyler Kepner of the New York Times. It’s about opt-outs in free agent contracts. If you aren’t totally up on opt-outs it’s an excellent article about the issue in and of itself. But it also provides an excellent example of Commissioner Rob Manfred acting as the head of the owners’ committee as opposed to being some overall leader of the greater baseball community. Check this out:

In a telephone interview, Commissioner Rob Manfred credited agents for skillfully using leverage but emphasized the “disproportionately pro-player” aspect of the clause.

“The only scenario where you can say, with certainty, that the player is not going to opt out is if he’s had a career-ending injury or he has performed at a level that is so far beneath the value of those out-years that nobody’s going to duplicate it,” Manfred said. “That’s the only time the player is going to stay in that contract. Otherwise, you’ve lost control of the player.”

Manfred added: “If the player’s been good, the club’s going to want to keep him. So you end up either losing him or paying him even more than you originally paid him. Neither of those are good outcomes.”

Well, sure they’re good outcomes. They’re good for the player, obviously. They’re good for fans of the team who, by definition, got good performance from the player in the short time he was there. And, in the same dang article, you learn that in some cases opt-outs are good for the team and team management itself. Here’s Sandy Alderson talking about the value of the opt-out given to Yoenis Cespedes:

“I thought it would be highly unrealistic that we would get a shortened term without some sort of opt-out clause,” General Manager Sandy Alderson said. “And the value of the opt-out clause, from our standpoint, was a shorter term — which happened to be important to us. The only way the shorter term was going to make sense for the player was with the opt-out.”

So, there is player value to the opt-out. There is fan value in many cases. And, as Alderson notes, there is team value in terms of their ability to get a player they want and to field a competitive squad.

The only unequivocal downside of the opt-out is to the owners who have to pay more for a player. And, of course, that’s the part with which Manfred is primarily concerned, as “paying more for players” is something baseball owners have been against for over 150 years. It should be noted that Manfred is not on record as far as I know talking about how it’s a bad outcome for a player to be subject to a team option which ends up resulting in him being paid less than his market value if he performs well and puts him out of a job if he performs poorly.

Anyway, just a reminder of what the Commissioner of baseball’s job really is and whose interest with which he is primarily concerned.

The qualifying offer is a burdensome tax on baseball’s middle class

howie kendrick getty
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We’re only a few short weeks from pitchers and catchers reporting and yet Howie Kendrick, Yovani Gallardo, Dexter Fowler and Ian Desmond are all still free agents. As Buster Olney notes in his column today all of them are valuable players but teams are shying away from them because of the draft pick compensation attached to them by the qualifying offer system. Valuable, yes. So valuable that teams will give up a first round pick in order to sign them, apparently not. These guys are baseball’s middle class and they’re getting squeezed.

In case you’re unaware, the system works like this: free agents who played with only one team the previous year are eligible for the qualifying offer. The qualifying offer is a one-year deal worth the average of the top 125 salaries in MLB. This year that works out to $15.8 million. If a team makes the player a qualifying offer and the player does not accept it, the offering team is eligible to receive a compensation draft pick if the player signs elsewhere.

The supposed purpose of the qualifying offer/compensation pick rule is to compensate a team for losing a valuable player as long as they were willing to spend at least some substantial amount on them to begin with (i.e. that $15.8 million deal). In theory it’s Major League Baseball’s way of helping out teams who may not be able to offer six-year, $100 million deals but, dadgummit, are at least trying to be competitive.

But intents and outcomes can be very different things. The outcome of the qualifying offer — and quite possibly its original, less-publicized intent — has been to depress free agent salaries by building in a substantial cost to the price tag of any free agent. Want to sign a good player for three years and $48 million? Well, it’ll cost you three years, $48 million plus a high draft pick who will be under your complete control for at least six years. Which is a really, really big price to pay.

As we’ve seen in practice, this process does not hinder the price of true superstars. It only hinders the price of the middle class of free agents who are not themselves franchise players but who have shown that they are good enough to stick in the bigs and good enough to contribute enough to where they’re worth a one-year $15.8 million deal. And by depressing the salaries of those guys — of whom there are quite a lot — it in turn hinders the salaries of those players who are like them but are not yet to free agency, lowering the figures they can point to as comparables when negotiating contract extensions and the like.

Put differently, this is a much bigger problem for many more players than any one year’s version of Howie Kendrick, Yovani Gallardo, Ian Desmond and Dexter Fowler. It affects a huge swath of players and pushes down salaries for everyone apart from the small handful of elite free agents who can still command exorbitant deals. To use a political analogy, it’s a big, big tax on the middle class.

The MLBPA and the league will enter into negotiations for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement after this season. If I were a member of the MLBPA or in its leadership, I would make chucking the qualifying offer system one of my top priorities heading into those negotiations. It’s the single biggest factor depressing salaries in the game right now.

What would you do with the ball from the final out of the World Series?

Royals Celebrate
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Remember Doug Mientkiewicz? He caught the final out of the 2004 World Series and kept the baseball. A baseball that, on the open market, would’ve snagged a gabillion dollars given the 86-year World Series drought and Boston craziness and all of that. He kept it, though, as many guys who caught final World Series outs kept it. What was the big deal, right?

Well, since it was Boston, it became a big deal. It was a controversy. He got death threats. The Red Sox insulted him publicly as a “rent-a-player” and they filed a lawsuit against him. He was otherwise hounded until Hell wouldn’t have it before, in 2006, both sides agreed to donate the ball to the Hall of Fame.

The ball which led to the final out of the 2015 World Series is in the possession of a player too. That player: Drew Butera, who has it in a safe at his Florida home. Jon Morosi of Fox tells his story. It’s not that controversial a story. Butera plans to donate it to the Royals Hall of Fame at Kauffman Stadium. I guess we live in a simpler time now.

My favorite bit from the story is this, when the MLB people approached him right after the final out:

“As soon as we started jumping around, they came straight to me and said, ‘We need that ball,'” Butera remembered. “I said, ‘I don’t know if I want to give it to you.’ But they said, ‘No, no, we just want to authenticate it.’ So they put the sticker on it, gave it back to me, and I went right back into the pile.

All of which makes me think that the greatest baseball heist would not be to steal any memorabilia. Rather, it would be to steal those little stickers. It wouldn’t be easy to pull off, of course. I’d say you’re looking at a Boesky, a Jim Brown, a Miss Daisy, two Jethros, and a Leon Spinks. Oh, and the biggest Ella Fitzgerald ever. For starters.

But really, a man could do a lot of damage with those.

All of this makes me wonder about what I’d do if I caught the final out of the World Series. I suppose, the Doug Mientkiewicz situation — a truly historic ball that people REALLY care about — is somewhat rare. Maybe it’d be a similar situation if the Cubs won the World Series after all of this time, but beyond that, even those such balls aren’t so insanely valuable, especially compared to what baseball players make.

But would you want it around to look at sometime? Maybe some day, after your career is over, and you’re feeling bad about life? Maybe you’d want it on your mantle or in your den to remember the time when, man, you were at the top of the world?