Column: Drop in payroll adds fuel to baseball labor talks

The annual survey of opening day baseball salaries by The Associated Press usually reveals something interesting about the state of the game, and this year’s version was even more interesting than most.

Here’s a tidbit from it that borders on surprising: Despite all you hear and read about the game’s huge salaries, a big percentage of major league baseball players aren’t millionaires.

That’s not to say they won’t be by the time they’re done playing. Even those playing for minimum salary — assuming they are somewhat frugal with their money — will eventually end up with a pile of cash if their careers last long enough.

And then, of course, there’s Trevor Bauer making $38 million in Los Angeles this season and Francisco Lindor’s staggering 10-year, $341 million contract with the New York Mets.

But of the 902 players on opening-day rosters, 417 had salaries under $1 million. That included 316 — basically 1 of 3 players — making under $600,000.

Equally startling in the annual study by AP Baseball Writer Ronald Blum is that baseball salaries have actually taken a hit in the last few years after rising at a dizzying pace for the last few decades. The survey showed the average salary dropped 4.8 percent to just under $4.17 million on opening day from the start of the 2019 season and is down 6.4 percent since peaking at $4.45 million in 2017.

The rich are getting richer, largely because nothing is standing in the way of owners signing the latest hot player to keep fans happy.

But baseball’s middle class is getting squeezed. Analytics are causing teams to re-evaluate how much they want to commit to non-superstars for certain skill sets, and often they discover the best answer is the lowest paid player available.

Consider this: The 50 highest paid players make one-third of all the salary in baseball. The 100 highest paid players account for more than half the payroll, leaving 800 other players to split the remaining 47.6 percent.

Meanwhile, the median salary — the point at which an equal number of players are above and below — is $1.15 million, down 30% from the $1.65 million record high at the start of 2015.

For now, that means less complaining among fans about highly paid players who don’t produce on the field. But with the collective bargaining agreement expiring after this season it also means there’s a risk of no baseball come this time next year.

Management and the player’s union have long had a contentious relationship that seems to only be getting worse. And with salaries dropping, there are already whispers about a possible walkout or strike when the current contract expires Dec. 1.

“I think some of the trends we’re seeing are directly affecting the game and the players,’’ union chief Tony Clark told The Athletic earlier this month. ”And that is why it’s important to have a conversation, now that we are in bargaining, about those trends and how they are affecting the industry.’’

Talks toward a new contract have yet to begin, but the early indications are that they will be brutal. Owners are looking to keep things in check after commissioner Rob Manfred said they lost $2.5 to $3 billion in last year’s pandemic-shortened season, while players are determined to regain the upper hand when it comes to paychecks, service time and teams that don’t spend enough money to win.

To show how just how difficult the negotiations figure to be, owners and players couldn’t even come to terms before this season on expanded playoffs or the DH in the National League — things that logically would have benefitted both sides.

How the talks shake out remains to be seen, though fans can only hope both management and players understand that another work stoppage in baseball could cripple the game. The last one in 1994 wiped out a World Series and damaged baseball so badly there hasn’t been one since, but a perfect storm seems to be brewing this time around.

Management got the better end of the current deal, when players seemed more interested during negotiations in quality of life issues like a chef in every clubhouse and more days off in the season. With good reason, perhaps, because they figured salaries would keep going up every year like they had for the last half century or so.

They didn’t, and now there’s a day of reckoning ahead.

How the players and owners deal with it figures to define baseball for years to come.

___

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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