It's been a weird offseason for baseball. Manny Machado's free agency lasted until February and Bryce Harper's snuck into March. Dallas Kuechel and Craig Kimbrel still aren't only MLB rosters. Oh, and now more than ever to avoid having to eventually test the troubled waters of free agency.
There's another side to all of this: the owners' side. MLB owners want to keep their teams under payroll, and the era of analytics, along with arbitration team control, is helping to cut out baseball's middle class. A whopping 18 teams are spending below the average payroll ($133,441,720, according to Spotrac), while some, such as the Cubs and Red Sox, continue to operate above that mark.
While teams that spend more, in many but not all cases, are putting themselves in a better position to win, the lower payroll teams also get something out of it. According to a report from the Athletic, MLB awards a $20, WWE-style championship belt to the team that keeps salaries the lowest in arbitration.
MLB told the Athletic that the belt is "an informal recognition of those club's salary arbitration departments that did the best."
The problem here is apparent. Players' livelihoods are being reduced to a competition among owners to see who can pinch the most pennies. Arbitration is a last bastion of peace between players and owners, but it is flawed in the sense that players must be present to hear why they aren't worth what they think they are. After three years of service time, players are eligible for arbitration. After three years of arbitration, players can test free agency, which, as this offseason has illustrated, has evolved into a risky endeavor.
"The Association has worked with thousands of players through the salary arbitration process," said Rick Shapiro, adviser to MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark said, via the Athletic. "All I will tell you is that players respect the process and take the process very seriously – and rightfully so."
With that being said, that doesn't mean that Clark is OK with this practice from the owners.
"That clubs make sport of trying to suppress salaries in a process designed to produce fair settlements shows a blatant lack of respect for our Players, the game, and the arbitration process itself," Clark said in a statement on Friday, via ESPN.
This year's belt will go to either the Astros, Braves, Cubs, Indians, Rays or Twins. The Cubs avoided arbitration altogether by signing their seven arbitration-eligible players, including Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. The Astros had hearings with Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa and Chris Devenski. Then there are the Rays, who have the lowest payroll in the league and ultimately ended up giving Cy Young winner Blake Snell a worth $50 million.
The belt, while a bad look for the league, isn't necessarily any kind of smoking gun. It's more symbolic than anything. Most of all, it's likely that the players' union will bring all of this information up when it's time to negotiate a new CBA in 2021.