Brandon Moss and the Players’ Flawed Bargain by Travis Sawchik February 2, 2018 “When you’re talking about free agency you’re talking about aging players and the trend of overpaying a player’s aging curves has come to an end across baseball.” — Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins “Everybody wants to look up and scream, ‘collusion.’ Everybody wants to look up and scream, ‘This isn’t fair.’ But sooner or later, you have to take responsibility for a system you created for yourself. It’s our fault.” — Brandon Moss on MLB Network Radio There have been eight work stoppages in MLB history. Since the first of those, a strike in 1972 that lasted 13 days and 86 total games in duration, baseball has enjoyed its longest stretch of labor peace. Since the cataclysmic 1994-95 strike, which lasted 232 days and wiped out the World Series for the first time in 90 years, there has been no interruption in play. Revenues have grown exponentially since that strike. By some measures, the sport has never been more popular. No one wants a repeat of 1994-95, when there was no postseason and replacement players showed up for spring training the following February. But if there were a doomsday-style, labor-unrest clock, it would be inching closer to midnight this winter. What’s interesting about the comments made by Ross Atkins cited at the top of this post is they suggest the economic system is broken beyond repair for players. The institution of free agency, the right to enter the free market after accruing six years of service time, has changed what it can offer to many players. Clubs, when they can, are ignoring it as a talent-acquisition vehicle. Markets — in the form of multiple bidders — are not developing for many free agents. What’s interesting about Moss’s comments is that they reflect a player who understands that the system is broken and who is pointing a finger not outwardly but inwardly. When he opened up to MLB Network Radio earlier this week, he offered a candid and sober examination of where the players stand, how they got there, and who they largely have to blame: themselves. Bill Baer over at NBCSports was kind enough to transcribe and publish the interview. I found the following passage to be of greatest relevance: “I don’t want to sit here and pretend that I represent all the players. I don’t want to sit here and pretend that this may or may not be a popular opinion. This is just from my perspective as a guy that — my career is almost finished, so I don’t have to deal with this much longer. But the worry is there for me as far as a player now for the players in the future that enough attention is not being paid to the way we allow our system to be ran. I feel like we put more things that are of less value to the forefront. I just feel like we’re starting to have to walk a little bit of a tightrope that we’ve created for ourselves. “I think that we have given the owners and we have given the people who are very, very business savvy a very good opportunity to take advantage of a system that we have created for ourselves …. What we’ve done is we’ve incentivized owners and we’ve incentivized teams to say, ‘We don’t want to meet that price, it costs us too much to meet that price. It costs us draft picks. It costs us international signing money. It costs us all these different things. We’re going to have to pay a tax if we go over a certain threshold that we’ve set ourselves.’ I just think that by doing all those things, what we have done is we’ve given the owners and teams and franchises an excuse to not pay top free agents. To have a reason to say, ‘No, we don’t want to go after these guys because this is why.’” I don’t know if Moss is representing a majority opinion with these comments — I suspect he is — but I know a growing number of players are thinking more and more the way Moss is. I have to imagine the majority of players are concerned and that the game’s currently unemployed free agents are particularly anxious. The CAA agency, by way of a statement released Friday, says players are uniting in a “way not seen since 1994.” The CAA’s co-head says players are “outraged.” A rising tide… @MLB_PLAYERS pic.twitter.com/jwkoiiI0yt — Brodie Van Wagenen (@bvanwagenen) February 2, 2018 The concern has grown since I asked Tony Clark three springs ago if he was worried about his constituency being pinched, losing a percentage of revenue, as owners and front offices figured out how to win more and more efficiently. That was March of 2015. Clark claimed that no player, at that point, had expressed any anxiety about it. “You’re the first person to ask,” he said. I think the danger for the players is not so much this offseason, which has raised alarm with regard to the game’s economic model, but where the conversation is headed next offseason. Next offseason is going to be different. A lot different. Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, and Andrew Miller — among others — are going to be paid. But they are also the elite of the elite in a class of free agents historic both for its talent and its relative youth. There is always going to be a demand for the top talent in an industry. Across all industries, the top 1% are gaining a greater share of the available dollars. The record contracts of next winter could obscure a continuing problem for the MLBPA and the majority of its members: teams are still not going to be incentivized to pay for vast majority of free agents (see: Atkins’ comment). A soft cap will still exist, aging curves will still be very real, most free agents will not be under 30, and most teams will still be trying to stock the majority of their rosters with younger, pre-arbitration talent. Baseball’s economic models will still have the same problems for the vast majority of players. Baseball’s middle class might still be contracting, as I suggest in the piece linked to above. Moss noted those concerns on MLB Network Radio. Other players, too, might be more willing to dig in for a labor fight, aware of how some of the game’s economic structures are working against them, aware that free agency — which they fought so hard to create and protect — ain’t what it used to be for many players. It will be interesting to see where the conversation is a year from now. It will interesting to see if this offseason is forgotten or it is something of a tipping point with regard to players’ collective will. The sport has done a good job of avoiding labor strife, but a growing number of players, like Moss, are questioning the cost of that peace.