Pre-arbitration MLB stars are getting lowballed like never before in free agency, and it could lead to a work stoppage
The pre-arbitration years used to even out, now it looks like that is changing
The MLB system of compensation has long been out of whack compared to on-field performance, but everything used to even out and work itself out in the end. Unfortunately for the players -- and fans and media who love the game -- there's a growing inclination that front offices are putting a stop to the evening out on the back end and there's trouble brewing. We've started to see players publicly call out the slow offseason just as we've seen owners discussing how unwilling they are to go to 10 years.
The result might well be a work stoppage at some point which would be disastrous for the game. Hopefully something can be fixed on the front end in terms of making things more a meritocracy. Here are some examples to illustrate what I'm talking about.
The easiest one to illustrate the old way of doing business is Albert Pujols.
In 2001, Pujols hit .329/.403/.610 (157 OPS+) with 47 doubles, 37 homers, 130 RBI, 112 runs, a Rookie of the Year, a Silver Slugger, an All-Star berth and a fourth-place finish in MVP voting. He made $200,000. In 2002, he finished second in NL MVP voting (to the monster that was Barry Bonds) and made $600,000. In 2003, Pujols hit .359/.439/.667 (187 OPS+!) while leading the league in runs, hits, doubles, average and total bases. He was once again MVP runner-up to Bonds. He made $900,000.
Many know about Pujols' current 10-year, $240 million deal but don't discuss how drastically underpaid he was for the first portion of his career. Once the dust settles the Hall of Famer will have probably earned around the amount of money he should have made, but it came in an out-of-whack way, with the Cardinals taking the exceptional years and the Angels getting many of the not-so-good.
Seeing the way free agency is going now, the evening-out is going to fall by the wayside and that's a problem. Let's go back to the last three seasons and take a look and some examples of incredible shortfall.
- In 2016, Kris Bryant won the NL MVP and his Cubs won the World Series. He made $1.05 million that season. Fangraphs estimates he was worth $63.3 million to the Cubs.
- Also in 2016, Francisco Lindor was a top-10 finisher in MVP voting and a centerpiece for the AL pennant winning Indians. He made $579,300. Fangraphs estimates he was worth $43.6 million.
- In 2017, Carlos Correa was one of the most important players on the World Series winning Astros. He was having an MVP-caliber season until he fell injured and then hit .288/.325/.562 with five homers and 14 RBI in 18 playoff games. He made $535,000 that season with Fangraphs estimating his worth at $41.4 million.
- Last season, Juan Soto got a prorated portion of the league minimum ($545,000) to hit .292/.406/.517 with 25 doubles and 22 homers in 116 games. His worth was $29.5 million, per Fangraphs.
- Soto was the runner-up in Rookie of the Year voting to Ronald Acuna of the Braves, who got a similar salary to hit .293/.366/.552 with 26 doubles, 26 homers and 16 steals. The value, according to Fangraphs: $29.6 million.
Even if many people will inevitably say those numbers are far too high, everyone can agree those players were worth exponentially more than they got paid during the seasons I mentioned.
Again, this wasn't a problem so long as the players got paid eventually, but now them getting stiffed compared to production in pre-arbitration should be raising lots of eyebrows if the free agency payday isn't coming.
Manny Machado and Bryce Harper are special cases due to being just 26 years old instead of around 30, when most players hit free agency. They should still be getting gigantic deals for 10 years,.
On the flip-side, swallowing the lacking markets for players like Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and then on down to the likes of Adam Jones and Mike Moustakas would be a lot easier if they were fairly compensated for their earlier seasons.
- In 2015, Keuchel won the AL Cy Young and made $524,500.
- In 2011, Kimbrel finished ninth in Cy Young voting. In 2012, fifth. In 2013, fourth. He made less than a million bucks in each of those seasons.
And now they are being shut out, having not made nearly what they should have to this point. The system is breaking down.
No one is asking fans to feel sorry for these guys who are all millionaires due to playing a game, but the fact of the matter is this is an industry regularly raking in over $10 billion in revenue and these guys are the talent. In a meritocracy, MLB players are getting royally ripped off in pre-arbitration years and now that free agency is bottoming out, the system needs to change accordingly. Whether it's picking a certain number of players per team who can jump right into arbitration, allowing restricted free agency sooner or anything else, something needs to be done. All of the bullet-point examples used above and dozens more are unacceptable.
Hopefully things change sooner rather than later, because work stoppages ultimately hurt everyone involved in the short term and there's always the chance that extends to the long term.
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