Some young major leaguers have made headlines over the past week over the contracts that they signed. Before I can go into detail with what happened, I should give a quick primer on how the salary schedule works in Major League Baseball.
Over a player's first three years of service, his salary is controlled by his team. Naturally teams typically keep the salaries at or near the league minimum of $507,500 during this time. Slight incremental increases can happen, but it's also legal for the teams to decrease the player's salary at a maximum of 20% of the prior year's salary. This rarely happens though, as you can imagine that it's not in a team's best interest to irritate their players or players' agents (*cough* Scott Boras *cough*). While most, it not all teams do give out increases each year, some teams do have formulas that they follow. It may be like the Rockies that automatically give you a $1,000 raise just for having a full year of service time, or it could be like the Indians that have an algorithm that involves your major league performance.
Now that the primer is over, let's return to our current events. As I mentioned before, multiple young major leaguers have taken offense to how the pre-arbitration salaries are determined. In particular, we have Pirates ace pitcher Gerrit Cole, young Mets starter Jacob deGrom and Rays pitchers Jake Odorizzi and Brad Boxberger along with center fielder Kevin Kiermaier.
Cole completed his first full season in the majors with the Pirates though he had already made 41 major league starts between 2013 and 2014. Armed with a mid-90s fastball and wipeout slider, he ended 2015 with a 2.60 ERA that ranked seventh in the NL among qualified starters while striking out nearly a quarter of the batters he faced. That level of dominance was initially rewarded with a salary offer that was $3,000 less than his 2015 salary. Ultimately Cole ended up signing for the same salary that he was paid last season which was $531,000, and the Pirates claimed that the initial decrease in pay was due to a "system miscalculation."
deGrom was never highly thought of as a prospect but had everything click upon his promotion to the majors in 2014. After dazzling New York with a 2.69 ERA, he was even better in 2015 as he put up a 2.54 ERA, cementing himself with teammates Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard as possibly the most dominant rotation in baseball. For his troubles, deGrom was offered a $607,000 salary for 2016, just shy of $100,000 over the league minimum. deGrom acknowledged that he felt insulted, stating that he felt it was unfair that he was being paid as a rookie despite already being one of the best pitchers in the majors.
As for the Rays' players, Kiermaier has already established himself as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, exemplified by winning a Gold Glove last year. Odorizzi broke out and demonstrated that he is an above-average starting pitcher with a 3.35 ERA and striking out one-fifth of his batters faced, while Boxberger led the AL with 41 saves. Tampa Bay ended up giving Kiermaier a $600 raise, Odorizzi was docked $1,600 and Boxberger lost $2,200 from his 2015 salary.
Well, that was the original intent. You see, the trio of Rays along with deGrom all decided that they weren't going to stand for the belittling offers. Rather than take the salaries offered by their organization, the four instead refused the offers, automatically guaranteeing themselves that they would be paid the league minimum instead. While at first glance it sure seems like that was an asinine decision, the players are counting on sending a message to the players' union. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires on Dec. 1st and these players hope that their actions will encourage the players' union to negotiate a new pay structure for pre-arbitration players.
On one hand, I certainly agree with the players. If you can already demonstrate that you are one of the best at your position, it seems reasonable that you are rewarded accordingly. However, at the same time a player's production can be volatile. How many times have we seen a hot rookie explode onto the scene in his first year, only to hit the proverbial sophomore slump? Danny Valencia, I'm looking specifically at you. Imagine the frustration if the Valencias of MLB hit over .300 over half a season, earned a several million dollar raise, then immediately regressed to replacement level the very next season.
Secondly, the players' union has shown very little respect towards minor leaguers and younger players. Just Google the lawsuits filed by minor leaguers over their ridiculously low salaries for an idea that the veterans in the union believe that everyone should pay their dues. Unfortunately for the aforementioned players, they're fighting an uphill battle and it doesn't help either that Mike Trout didn't raise much of a fuss about his pre-arbitration salaries despite playing as if he set the difficulty level to "beginner." (Granted, Trout did sign a $1 million one-year contract in his third year, a record for a pre-arbitration player).
One argument is that these players easily could negotiate a contract that buys out some of their pre-arbitration and arbitration years. However, it takes two to tango and their teams would have to want to make that deal in the first place. Second, when you're guaranteed to be earning near the league minimum, it wouldn't benefit a team in any way to lock in a different salary. That is, unless you can successfully pull off an Evan Longoria or Salvador Perez-type of highway robbery. I can't necessarily speculate on Kiermaier, Odorizzi and Boxberger as they are significantly lesser players, but Cole and deGrom appear to be legitimate aces and have little reason to leave money on the table in order to sign a multi-year contract.
Ultimately, I think these players' efforts will be done in vain. I can't see how the teams would agree to a similar arbitration structure that would replace the pre-arbitration salaries. I'll admit, it's not fair for some of the players, but the Coles, deGroms and Trouts are the exceptions that are hurt by how it is right now rather than the rules. I'm not a believer of the "pay your dues" mantra, but right now I can't see a solution that would be fair to both sides.