Comment of the Day: on Carlos Lee and no-trade clauses

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Carlos Lee’s decision not to accept a trade to L.A. inspired reader sincitybonobo to ponder what it all means:

I will preface this by saying he simply exercised an option that was available to him and broke no rules.

However, at the tail end of a contract that he never came close to justifying, he has a chance to save the woebegone Astros some money, let them pick up a couple of prospects, and make a push for October with a storied franchise.

He’d be spending six extra weeks in the regular season away from his ranch. Half of his remaining games as an Astro will be played on the road.

Weak. If he weren’t ridiculously overpaid, I wouldn’t be so hard on him. Exercising this option is permissible. However, it does not prevent you from being perceived as gutless and selfish.

We hear this sentiment a lot when someone with a no-trade clause says no. I agree with the commenter that the primary blame in such situations should fall on the team for foolishly agreeing to a no-trade clause like the Astros did with Lee, but it is understandable for fans to also be upset at the player to some degree too, even if it’s not necessarily justified. The fans care a lot and they want the best thing for their team. In this case, losing Carlos Lee is absolutely the best thing for the Astros.

Ultimately, however, I think this serves as a lesson that, contrary to what a lot of fans want to believe, players often — maybe more often than we realize — think of baseball as their job and nothing more. And no matter how much money is involved, many of them view a trade the same way you’d view being transferred to another city for your job. It’s disruptive and, if it can be avoided, it’d be nice to.

Carlos Lee negotiated the right to tell his boss he didn’t want a transfer. It seems unsatisfying in the context of sports because we feel like the players owe their team and/or the fans something more than they do, but that’s all it is.

Players are waking up and getting ready to fight

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There’s this idea out there that the owners have been eating the players’ lunch at the bargaining table in recent years because the players are, generally, rich and happy and maybe don’t care about a lot of the stuff the previous couple of generations of players did. There is probably some degree of truth to that. The difference between a good deal and a bad deal, in both collective bargaining and on the free agent market, is way less dire now than it used to be and thus the urgency may not have been there over the past several years the way it was in 1981 or 1994.

But it goes too far to say that such a mindset is universal among players. Or that it’s a mindset which, even among those who hold it, will always persist. Players may not have been as vigilant about labor matters over the past several years as they used to be, but they’re not idiots and, at some point, the owners are gonna push ’em too far and they’ll respond.

As we find ourselves in the second straight offseason in which teams simply don’t seem all too keen on signing free agents, it’s starting to happen already.

Earlier this week Dallas Keuchel tweeted out some things critical of the current market and teams’ approach to it (and took another swipe today). This afternoon Giants third baseman Evan Longoria chimed in on Instagram, posting a picture of Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, and saying the following:

We are less then a month from the start of spring and once again some of our games biggest starts remain unsigned. Such a shame. It’s seems every day now someone is making up a new analytical tool to devalue players, especially free agents. As fans, why should “value” for your team even be a consideration? It’s not your money, it’s money that players have worked their whole lives to get to that level and be deserving of. Bottom line, fans should want the best players and product on the field for their team. And as players we need to stand strong for what we believe we are worth and continue to fight for the rights we have fought for time and time again.

Most of that is common sense, the sort of which we’ve been arguing for around here for some time. Fans should care about good players and winning baseball games, not whether or not their front office can get a great bargain for its own sake. It may be interesting to talk about payroll and salaries and wins/$, but the point of baseball is to win, right? When so many teams seem rather uninterested in that, it’s a problem that all of the interesting analytical insights can’t really make up for.

The second part is worth keeping your eyes on. Maybe players have not been on a war footing the likes of which their predecessors were in the 1970s through the 1990s, but it doesn’t mean they won’t get back there if pushed. As is abundantly clear, the owners are pushing. Salaries are dropping in both an absolute sense and, especially, compared to baseball’s revenues. Players are getting a smaller piece of the pie than they have in a while and ownership seems quite pleased to see that continue.

If players are saying stuff like this publicly, it means that players are talking about it amongst themselves privately. The last two years have likely served as quite a wakeup call for them, and they seem to be waking up. Evan Longoria is. Dallas Keuchel is. So are some others. If current trends continue, more and more will wake up.

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires following the 2021 season. What happens over the rest of this offseason and the next two is going to determine the mood of the players. The mood of the players, in turn, is going to dictate the tenor of negotiations. If they were to begin right now, those negotiations would be very, very rocky.