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.