Are the scales starting to tip in favor of the players?
I've heard people say that they don't like to watch baseball because "it's boring". If this is you, please locate the little red "X" in the upper right-hand corner of this browser window. You may want to click it to close this out if you think watching baseball is boring, because I'm about to talk about how exciting this OFFSEASON was.
Here's a fun fact for you: Did you know that every episode of the 90's sitcom "Friends" was officially titled "The one where _________". As in, "The one where Ross discusses the element of surprise", for example. I think it's pretty safe to say that, when talking about the 2010-2011 MLB offseason, it could be titled, "The one with Cliff Lee". For weeks and weeks, everyone speculated between the offers he'd field from the Rangers and the Yankees. National headlines were all, "John Daniels got on a plane and went to Arkansas". Then other national headlines were like, "Oh, yeah? So did Cashman, so there." Debates & "leaked offers" were the talk of baseball, trying to decode language and see if either team would offer Lee that elusive 7th year in their contract offer, remember?
Anyway, turns out the whole thing was for naught. Lee signed a deal to go [back] to Philadelphia for less total money, AND fewer guaranteed years. WHAT?! Yes! Then, Lance Berkman signed a 1-year $8M deal with the Cardinals, turning down as much as $10M from at least one other club, according to sources. Shortly thereafter, Jim Thome inked a deal for (you guessed it) less money to return to Target Field, and play for the twins again in 2011.
These are three big names in the game, one of which was the biggest free agent on the market during this offseason. The other two, while no longer superstars, are among the better-known names in the game, and certainly had a market this past winter. My point is that unlike in the past, we saw players accepting offers of less money and/or fewer guaranteed years in order to play for the team they most desired.
I asked John Mozeliak what his thoughts were on this seeming "shift of power, away from the agents & organizations, and back towards the players". He conceded that it was interesting to say the very least, and has certainly raised some eyebrows, but said that at the end of the day, the decision always does (and has) rested with the player. Then he went on to point out that the "deals like Werth & Crawford are the ones that move the needle".
An excellent point was made by someone on the MLBNetwork (can't recall who said it), speaking about the Cliff Lee deal, though it applies everywhere: The difference between $5 million and $25 million is a lot--It's a difference that changes your lifestyle. $5M is a lot of money, but you can't live like you could if you had $25M. Now multiply that by 5, 6 or 7 (years of a contract), and the difference adds up in a hurry! Imagine the difference in lifestyle a person would have if rather than earning $30M over a six-year span, they earned $150M--an extra $120M makes a tremendous difference! But, the difference between $120M and $132M (one offer reportedly made by the Yankees for the services of Cliff Lee) isn't all that much. Sure, $12M is a lot of money, but it isn't enough, at that dollar level, to impact a person's lifestyle, and that's the key--the lifestyle. It's not like a guy can finally *now* afford to buy that exotic car that had been out of his price range until now, or build that mansion, or vacation in Dubai...etc. with $132M, but he couldn't have afforded it with the paltry $120M. There's no change in lifestyle, and I believe that is what's driving this shift of power. Put another way, "This isn't your father's twelve million dollars".
Let me break it down for you like this: Say I walk into McDonald's. There are a number of lines from which I could place my order. There are only 4 items on the menu--all slightly different-sized packages of chicken McNuggets. There's a 45,000-pack, a 41,500-pack, a 46,000-pack, and a 43,750-pack. In any case, I'm gonna end up with more chicken McNuggets than I could ever realistically eat. So, the only real decision to make is: which line do I want to order from? Well, there are considerations to be made...do I choose the shortest line? The line with the cutest girl taking orders? The one closest to the drink machine, or some other factor? Maybe my decision-making process includes a variety of factors, some of which include what I've mentioned, maybe others of which based on things not mentioned here. At the end of the day, I'll never be able to eat all those McNuggets, no matter which "pack" I get. Understanding that, I no longer prioritize "how many McNuggets am I going to get today?" as my number one consideration, and other factors begin to rise to the upper echelons of my order of prioritizing what's important.
I believe we've reached somewhat of a plateau in baseball, and players are becoming increasingly willing to leave money on the table if it means they can enjoy some of the other things that they deem important when deciding where to play. In the years to come, this could really help level the playing field far more than any luxury tax, salary cap, or even a salary floor. Think about the days before television revenue became such a factor in baseball: Most teams were in pretty much the same boat. I think it's plausible to think that we just may be headed back in that direction sooner rather than later. Imagine it, competitive balance across most of baseball, and living in a world where the athletes consider factors other than money when deciding where they want to play. A game where the playing field is more level, and teams finances play a less important role in where a player chooses to sign? I'm lovin' it!