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.

MLB crowds jump from ’21, still below pre-pandemic levels

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PHOENIX — Even with the homer heroics of sluggers like Aaron Judge and Albert Pujols, Major League Baseball wasn’t able to coax fans to ballparks at pre-pandemic levels this season, though attendance did jump substantially from the COVID-19 affected campaign in 2021.

The 30 MLB teams drew nearly 64.6 million fans for the regular season that ended Wednesday, which is up from the 45.3 million who attended games in 2021, according to baseball-reference.com. This year’s numbers are still down from the 68.5 million who attended games in 2019, which was the last season that wasn’t affected by the pandemic.

The 111-win Los Angeles Dodgers led baseball with 3.86 million fans flocking to Dodger Stadium for an average of 47,672 per contest. The Oakland Athletics – who lost 102 games, play in an aging stadium and are the constant subject of relocation rumors – finished last, drawing just 787,902 fans for an average of less than 10,000 per game.

The St. Louis Cardinals finished second, drawing 3.32 million fans. They were followed by the Yankees (3.14 million), defending World Series champion Braves (3.13 million) and Padres (2.99 million).

The Toronto Blue Jays saw the biggest jump in attendance, rising from 805,901 fans to about 2.65 million. They were followed by the Cardinals, Yankees, Mariners, Dodgers, and Mets, which all drew more than a million fans more than in 2021.

The Rangers and Reds were the only teams to draw fewer fans than in 2021.

Only the Rangers started the 2021 season at full capacity and all 30 teams weren’t at 100% until July. No fans were allowed to attend regular season games in 2020.

MLB attendance had been declining slowly for years – even before the pandemic – after hitting its high mark of 79.4 million in 2007. This year’s 64.6 million fans is the fewest in a non-COVID-19 season since the sport expanded to 30 teams in 1998.

The lost attendance has been balanced in some ways by higher viewership on the sport’s MLB.TV streaming service. Viewers watched 11.5 billion minutes of content in 2022, which was a record high and up nearly 10% from 2021.