AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

The competitive balance tax is ruining the offseason

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Last week, SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee wrote a terrific article explaining how baseball’s competitive balance tax has led to a slow, boring offseason. For the uninitiated, baseball teams pay a 17.5 percent luxury tax for going over the threshold. If those teams stay over for a second, third, and fourth consecutive year, those penalties rise to 30, 40, and 50 percent, respectively. Those thresholds for 2017-21 are $195 million, $197 million, $206 million, $208 million, and $210 million, respectively.

The Associated Press reported that the Dodgers were billed $36.2 million in luxury tax, while the Yankees had to pay $15.7 million. That was followed by the Giants at $4.1 million, the Tigers at $3.7 million, and the Nationals at $1.45 million.

Teams are now making trades to ensure that they don’t inch any closer to the penalty. Brisbee cites the recent trade between the Rays and Giants that saw Evan Longoria head to San Francisco while Denard Span, Christian Arroyo, Matt Krook, and Stephen Woods went to Tampa Bay. The Rays agreed to pay down $14.5 million of the $88 million remaining on Longoria’s contract, which helps the Giants avoid the CBT, as did accepting Span and his remaining salary in the deal. The Matt Kemp trade between the Dodgers and Braves was another example of teams making a trade primarily to avoid the CBT. The Braves got Brandon McCarthy, Scott Kazmir, Charlie Culberson, Adrian Gonzalez, and cash. The Dodgers got Kemp. The Braves then immediately designated Gonzalez for assignment. The salaries were essentially a wash, but for the Dodgers, they spread the money they owed over two seasons instead of one, greatly improving their ability to stay under the CBT.

So, the CBT is making trades boring and unsatisfying. If you’re a Braves fan, maybe you were excited to see a star player in Gonzalez, even if he’s injury-prone and at the end of his career. Instead, he was simply dropped off at the curb right after the trade and all the Braves have left from the deal are second- and third-tier retreads. If you’re a Rays fan, perhaps you wonder why the club gave up Longoria, the best player in franchise history. Due to the esoteric rules, it’s more difficult than it’s ever been for a casual fan to understand why a trade was made.

But it’s not just trades that are affected by the CBT. Free agency has been greatly affected as well. As Brisbee points out, only a handful of free agents have signed big contracts since the offseason began. First baseman Carlos Santana got $60 million over three years from the Phillies. Shortstop Zack Cozart signed a three-year, $38 million deal with the Angels, and pitcher Tyler Chatwood inked the same deal with the Cubs. The Angels also signed Shohei Ohtani from Japan, but he’ll get a relatively meager $2.315 million signing bonus and then go through the arbitration process. First baseman Yonder Alonso agreed to a two-year, $16 million contract with the Indians. Most of the other players to have signed by this date are relief pitchers: Jake McGee, Bryan Shaw, Brandon Morrow, Tommy Hunter, Juan Nicasio, Pat Neshek, Joe Smith, Anthony Swarzak, Steve Cishek, Luke Gregerson, etc.

There just hasn’t been that much money going around in free agency this offseason and part of the reason why is teams wanting to avoid getting close to or exceeding the luxury tax and also wanting to avoid having to give up draft picks as compensation for signing players. Lots of really good players are still free agents and we are almost into 2018. Those players include Yu Darvish, J.D. Martinez, Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain, and Lance Lynn. With the exception of Darvish and Martinez, the players on that list rejected qualifying offers and will require draft pick compensation.

Brisbee suggests that when the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated, players will be “desperate to ditch” the CBT while owners will fight to keep it. It is quite possible that, in an effort to get rid of the CBT, the union will make concessions elsewhere, perhaps on international players or minor leaguers (who don’t have union representation). As of right now, though, we’re enduring one of the most boring offseasons we’ve had in quite some time.

Astros owner Crane expects to hire new manager by Feb. 3

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HOUSTON (AP) — Houston Astros owner Jim Crane expects to hire a new manager by Feb. 3.

The Astros need a new manager and general manager after AJ Hinch and Jeff Luhnow were fired Monday, hours after both were suspended by Major League Baseball for a year for the team’s sign-stealing scandal.

Crane said Friday that he’s interviewed a number of candidates this week and has some more to talk to in the coming days.

Crane refused to answer directly when asked if former Astros player and Hall of Famer Craig Biggio was a possibility for the job. But he did say that he had spoken to Biggio, fellow Hall of Famer Jeff Bagwell and former Astros star Lance Berkman in the days since the firings.

“We’ve talked to all of our Killer B’s,” Crane said referring to the nickname the three shared while playing for the Astros. “They’ve contacted me and they’ve all expressed that they would like to help. Berkman, Bagwell, Biggio have all called and said: ‘hey, if there’s anything I can do, I’m here for you.’”

“So we’ll continue to visit with those guys and see if there’s something there.”

Crane says his list is still rather extensive and that he hopes to have it narrowed down by the end of next week. He added that he expects most of Hinch’s staff to stay in place regardless of who is hired.

Crane has enlisted the help of three or four employees to help him with the interview process, including some in Houston’s baseball operations department.

“We compare notes,” he said. “I’ve learned a long time ago that you learn a lot if four or five people talk to a key candidate and you get a lot more information. So that’s what we’re doing.”

Crane’ top priority is finding a manager with spring training less than a month away, but he said he would start focusing on the search for a general manager after he hires a manager. He expects to hire a GM before the end of spring training.

“We should have another good season with the team pretty much intact … so I don’t know why a manager wouldn’t want to come in and manage these guys,” he said. “They’re set to win again.”

The penalties announced by MLB commissioner Rob Manfred on Monday came after he found illicit use of electronics to steal signs in Houston’s run to the 2017 World Series championship and again in the 2018 season. The Astros were also fined $5 million, which is the maximum allowed under the Major League Constitution, and must forfeit their next two first- and second-round amateur draft picks.

The investigation found that the Astros used the video feed from a center field camera to see and decode the opposing catcher’s signs. Players banged on a trash can to signal to batters what was coming, believing it would improve the batter’s odds of getting a hit.

With much still in flux, Crane was asked what qualities are most important to him in his next manager.

“Someone mature that can handle the group,” he said. “Someone that’s had a little bit of experience in some areas. We’ve just got to find a leader that can handle some pressure and there’s going to be a little bit of pressure from where this team has been in the last few months.”

Despite his comment about experience, Crane said having been a major league manager before is not mandatory to him.

“We made some mistakes,” he said. “We made a decision to let that get behind us. We think the future is bright. We’ll make the adjustments … people think we’re in crisis. I certainly don’t believe that.”