Commentary

Early warning for potential labor unrest

Marlins' recent vow to increase player payroll could have big impact on next labor deal

Originally Published: January 29, 2010
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

It didn't look, didn't smell, didn't feel like the kind of moment that would launch a war.

Let's just say it wasn't exactly the sinking of the Lusitania.

Heck, it was only a news release.

Josh Johnson
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireJosh Johnson signed a four-year, $39 million contract earlier this month that will keep him with the Marlins through the 2013 season.

But mark the words of the resident psychics here at World Rumblings and Grumblings headquarters: In two years, we'll be looking back on that news release as seven paragraphs that changed baseball.

They were seven meticulously worded paragraphs about those low-budget Florida Marlins, issued just a couple of weeks ago. Somewhere in there, the Marlins made a solemn vow to spend their revenue-sharing dollars "to increase player payroll annually as they move toward the opening of their new ballpark."

But make no mistake about it. This was not just about the Marlins.

This was a sneak preview of potentially the most volatile issue standing in the way of baseball's next labor deal.

Let's draw up the complicated battle lines for you, as they've been painted for us by several knowledgeable sources.

You've got your big-budget teams, now pointing fingers at five or six low-budget teams.

You've got those low-budget teams, assuring one and all that they haven't done a darned thing wrong, even as one of them is getting slapped on the wrist in an unprecedented press release.

You've got a bunch of middle-market teams, squished in between the main combatants, who aren't real happy with either side.

And then you've got the folks from the players' union, watching all of this carefully because, at the moment, it's affecting their troops' livelihood, and because, sooner or later, it's all going to come crashing down on their side at the bargaining table.

In other words, you have a war looming that's going to drag in just about everyone in the game -- except maybe the guys grilling the hot dogs behind section 238.

Now the good news is, this probably isn't a dispute that's going to wind up shutting down the sport, the way it did in the bad old days of 1994. It's probably not leading us to a strike or lockout two years down the highway.

But it's still a gigantic issue -- because it is a modern-day version of the same battles that blew up baseball a decade and a half ago.

Except now this is a sport where more than $400 million in revenue-sharing welfare gets passed from the haves to the have-nots every year. And that's a great development, at least on the old drawing board.

Obviously, the reason baseball is sharing all that money now is as basic as a 3-and-0 "take" sign:

It's supposed to even out the playing field.

But here's the big question: Is that working?

It's a question we've heard before. But this time, it isn't the fine citizens of Pittsburgh and Kansas City and Cincinnati who are asking it.

It's teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Cubs. Those four teams are dumping enormous amounts of money into the revenue-sharing pool -- more than $300 million just among the four of them, by some estimates. And they're wondering where it's going. We don't blame them.

As we documented in a Rumblings column earlier in the offseason, you have a half-dozen teams -- believed to be the Marlins, Pirates, Padres, Rays, Royals and Blue Jays -- receiving somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million to $40 million a year in revenue sharing alone. You have even more teams that take in at least $80 million a year before they sell a single ticket.

But are those teams actually spending that money on "improving their performance on the field," as the Basic Agreement requires them to? Fascinating question.

In just the last few months, we've heard Red Sox owner John Henry and agent Scott Boras pose that question publicly. We've heard many more people raise it privately.

And then we read that news release.

What preceded it, from what we've heard, were threats from the players' union to file grievances against the Marlins, Pirates, Padres and Rays for not spending their revenue-sharing checks the way the rules require them to.

Next thing we knew, the Marlins were promising to do just that -- and then, almost immediately afterward, signing their ace, Josh Johnson, to the biggest pitching contract in the history of the franchise.

We're hearing that other teams -- particularly the Pirates -- could be next in the line of fire. But whether they are or aren't, what happened to the Marlins, one source said, is a sign that this sport is now "paying close attention" to what teams do with their revenue-sharing welfare checks. And that's a major development.

But to be honest, any attention we devote to any one team is just small-picture stuff. The big picture is way more important, because all of this is merely the pregame show for what's coming -- namely, a monumental adjustment to The System.

That adjustment is going to have to come in those labor talks. It won't be easy. And it won't be pretty. But here's where that might be leading at your friendly neighborhood bargaining table:

• The big-budget teams are clearly going to rebel against continuing to paying out monstrous revenue-sharing dollars without a more concrete guarantee that the teams getting that money will spend those dollars on payroll -- not on debt service, ballpark construction fees or the office Christmas party.

• There's an excellent chance that those big-budget titans will find plenty of allies in that rebellion. The next tier of teams paying smaller revenue-sharing bills -- the Angels and Dodgers, for instance -- could easily line up in the same corner.

• Then there are a bunch of teams in the middle -- clubs like the Astros, Rangers and Orioles that were once viewed as the biggest beneficiaries of this system -- that could rise up and ask why they're not getting a meaningful slice of this pie.

• And, finally, there will always be a contingent of clubs grumbling about a system in which the Yankees are allowed to have a payroll two or three times as large as teams in their own division.

The most likely outcome, if you look at this logically, is a big correction to The System -- toward a system that isn't as top-heavy or bottom-heavy.

When the rubble settles, we see a world where the revenue-sharing bills aren't as monstrous at the top, where the checks aren't as humongous for the bottom and the clubs in the middle reap more of the benefits. Then again, we can also guarantee nobody will ask us how to settle this mess.

But with all those forces tugging at one another, and with so many negotiable U.S. dollars at stake, you can see where this is leading.

"It's going to be a donnybrook," one baseball official said succinctly.

And, as with all classic labor-talk donnybrooks, we can … um … hardly wait. How 'bout you?

Ready to rumble

• Short circuited: If you're geeky enough to study trends in free-agent contracts -- and yeah, that's a crime the Rumblings staff will plead guilty to -- you'll notice something: These deals keep getting shorter and shorter.

Check out this list -- of the number of free-agent contracts of three years or longer that have been handed out over the last four winters:

2009-10: 8
2008-09: 13
2007-08: 13
2006-07: 29

We didn't count international signings or trade-and-sign packages (a la Johan Santana or Roy Halladay), just pure free-agent deals. But we didn't count them in other years, either. And according to data assembled by ESPN's research department, those eight long-term deals would be the fewest since 1994-95 -- which barely counts, since it was the winter with a strike hanging over it.

"I don't see why this should be a big surprise," one NL executive said. "Everybody knew going into this winter that this was not going to be a star-studded free-agent market, other than [Matt] Holliday and (Jason Bay). If you'd asked me going into the winter which guys would get long deals, I'd have said those two, plus [Chone] Figgins and [John] Lackey. So I'd have missed half of them."

Come to think of it, just about everyone else we know would have missed the four he missed -- Placido Polanco (Phillies), Marlon Byrd (Cubs), Randy Wolf (Brewers) and -- who knew? -- Brandon Lyon (Astros).

One particularly notable development this winter was that only three of those long deals went to pitchers. That's down from six last winter, five in '07-08 and 16 the winter before that.

And contracts longer than three years for pitchers are now almost as extinct as the brontosaurus. There was only one free-agent pitching deal of four years or longer this winter (Lackey) -- the fewest since 2003-04.

• The agent scoreboard: One more note on the decline in long-term contracts: Just for fun, we decided to tally up which agents negotiated the most free-agent deals of three years or longer over the last three winters (again, not counting international signings). The standings:

Seth and Sam Levinson: 9
Scott Boras: 6
Arn Tellem/Adam Katz/Paul Kinzer: 6

Johnny Damon
Damon

• Heeere's Johnny: Here's what we know about Johnny Damon: He will be employed this season. But here's what even the teams that have been linked to him don't know: Where he'll be employed. So Damon's eventual destination has become a topic of endless fascination around the sport these days.

The club that other teams think makes the most sense -- Detroit -- just doesn't seem all that interested. The Reds? They've been focused on their infield, not their outfield. The Braves? We hear they haven't talked to Scott Boras about Damon in a month and a half. The Rays? They've checked in, but they have pretty much no money to play with -- which isn't one of Boras' favorite traits in a team. The Blue Jays? Seemed to be mostly tire-kicking. The A's? Maybe -- "but that's a terrible park for him," one AL executive said.

So eventually, Damon is just going to have to figure out where he'd like to be, concede that that big Powerball payday isn't out there this time, and tell his agent to get this done. If the price is right and Damon pretty much comes to them and gift-wraps himself, our guess is that the Rays, Tigers or Braves would find a way to sign him. But it would have to be on their terms, not his.

• The O Network: Miguel Tejada might not be the last ex-Oriole to pull back into Camden Yards this winter. The Orioles also have been working on bringing back their old amigo, Erik Bedard. And according to a source familiar with Bedard's thinking, that interest is "mutual." Whether they can agree on price, in the wake of the Ben Sheets contract, is another story.

• Leftovers: The Phillies appear done handing out 40-man-roster spots, but they're not finished shopping. They'd still like to add a veteran left-handed reliever on a minor-league deal. But the two they've chased most heavily -- Alan Embree and Ron Mahay -- are both holding out for big league contracts.

Orlando Cabrera
Cabrera

• Still rocking: The Rockies, from all indications, decided to zero in on Orlando Cabrera over Melvin Mora because of concerns about whether Mora could still play multiple positions in the infield. Of course, Cabrera himself hasn't started a game at a position other than shortstop since 1998. But the other big component here is the price tag. The Rockies would like to have enough dollars left over to add another bullpen arm. One name high on their shopping list: Kevin Gregg.

• Relief in sight: The Cubs continue to shop for set-up relievers. But if they can't work something out with Chan Ho Park, Kiko Calero or some other free agent, we're hearing they also have some trade options out there. We're hearing they've checked in with Toronto on Scott Downs and Jason Frasor, two guys the Blue Jays have been telling teams are available.

• Fish food: Could the Marlins be a potential destination for Russell Branyan? They've been looking for a left-handed bat off the bench, and they're not sure whether either of their first-base options (Logan Morrison and Gaby Sanchez) is ready. So they could be a definite fit for the only remaining free agent who made 30 home run trots last year.

• In the Fish tank: More stuff we've heard on the Marlins: They're in on a bunch of free-agent relievers (Park, Gregg, Calero, Joe Nelson, Seth McClung). And while they're still telling teams they'd talk about Dan Uggla, it's hard to see a match at this point. All the teams we've heard connected to Uggla at any point (Giants, Orioles, Braves, Rockies, Mariners) have moved on.

• Royal flush: You don't see many major trades in spring training anymore. But the Royals could be a team to watch, because they've let other clubs know they'd be "open-minded" about moving Gil Meche or Brian Bannister in the right deal. Of course, both guys have to prove they're healthy this spring. And at the moment, the Royals wouldn't seem to have enough starting-pitching depth to make trading away a starter really feasible. But they still appear intent on listening, especially if they get young pitching back.

John Smoltz
Smoltz

• What's the hurry: Spring training might be just a long toss away. But we keep hearing that, all those Mets rumors to the contrary, John Smoltz is in no rush to sign.

Clubs that have spoken with his agents, Keith Grunewald and Lonnie Cooper, report that if Smoltz doesn't think the fit is right, he might wait until late in spring training to sign. He's also considering waiting even longer, to position himself as somebody's midseason cavalry force. And if Smoltz wants to be a starter, which he does, we've heard execs from several teams say that's exactly what he should do.

"I honestly think that would be his best route," one of those front-office men said. "He should come back in the second half, like Roger Clemens and Pedro [Martinez] and Paul Byrd. Who wouldn't love to have John Smoltz on their club? But the truth is, he doesn't have a full tank anymore. He needs to save his bullets. So I think that would be a good fit in his case. And I hear he's thinking about it, but I don't think he's there yet."

• Athleticism: The A's do their own thing so creatively and relentlessly that they can't possibly stress much about what the rest of the sport thinks of them. But guaranteeing Ben Sheets 10 million bucks? That deal has the entire sport buzzing.

Among the reviews we heard from other clubs: "Insane." … "I honestly thought he'd get half that." … "Craziest thing I ever heard." … Etc.

Just so you understand the historical context, the A's have never had a pitcher who made $10 million -- not even Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder or Barry Zito. And while they've traded for Matt Holliday, Jermaine Dye and Jason Kendall, they've never signed a free agent for $10 million a year. So the easy explanation for this stunner is, as one front-office man put it, "It's not going to cost them $10 million because he won't be there" (after July).

But not everyone is so sure Sheets is as moveable an object as Holliday was last summer. One GM who routinely praises Oakland's outside-the-box thinking said this signing "shocked" him -- and that the people who just assume the A's can move him in midseason are missing something.

"They're discounting the fact that this is not a guy who carries the normal risk in signing a pitcher. Over and above the surgery, if you just check the track record, there's a decent chance he breaks down and you've just flushed $10 million. Look, I understand what could end up happening and the risk/reward involved. But no matter how I look at it, it doesn't make any sense."

• Prior engagements: Just because you haven't heard Mark Prior's name in a while -- like possibly since 2006 -- doesn't mean the one-time Cubs prodigy is retired. Heck, no. Prior won't even turn 30 until this September. And he's carefully working his way back from his second shoulder surgery, trying to make one more comeback.

It's slightly more than 20 months since Dr. James Andrews performed that most recent operation, to repair a torn shoulder capsule. Now Prior's agent, John Boggs, tells Rumblings that Prior is throwing off a mound in California, trying to ease his way back to health.

"Mark has been through so many timelines, at this point I'm almost allergic to the word," Boggs said. "But he's out there. He's getting himself ready. And when he's ready, I'm sure you'll hear a lot about him. Then we'll invite teams to come watch him throw. And hopefully, he'll be the next Ben Sheets."

• G-force: The Braves could name Tom Glavine as a special assistant to GM Frank Wren any minute now. Looks as if that job would turn Glavine into a first-class multitasker. He'd do some broadcasting, serve as a spring-training instructor, have input into team-building decisions and tour the minor leagues as both a roving instructor and evaluator. Nothing's finalized yet. But Wren told Rumblings: "There's a good chance something will happen."

[+] EnlargeDavid Wright
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiAfter suffering a concussion last season, David Wright wore a super-sized batting helmet for a short period of time.

• Head start: It was only a few months ago that Rawlings' innovative, super-sized S-100 batting helmet was a late-night quip waiting to happen. (Jimmy Kimmel on David Wright, after Wright tried out the S-100 in September: "He looks like the bobblehead version of himself.") Now it's about to become a piece of standard equipment.

The powers that be in baseball are so concerned about concussions that they've issued a new mandate: Every player in the minor leagues will be required to wear that helmet this season, because it offers the most protection against concussions of any helmet ever invented.

But meanwhile in the big leagues, where several players tried wearing the same helmet last September, there were enough complaints about the weight, the loose fit and the bobblehead-ish styling that MLB has gone back to the people at Rawlings and asked them to try to come up with a model that looks and fits better. But it's a major challenge to design a smaller helmet with optimum protection.

So it will be interesting to see how many players are willing to wear the S-100 in the big leagues this season. You'd hate to think safety concerns would lose out to fear-of-monologue syndrome. But the players who tried out that helmet in September were the butt of so many jokes, we'd bet you'll see very few players who are willing to put themselves through that abuse this year. Too bad.

Rarified '00s stat of the week

In honor of Livan Hernandez, who allowed so many baserunners over the last 10 years that only one pitcher in baseball was within 500 (yep, 500) of him, Rumblings now presents yet another exclusive '00s leaderboard -- most baserunners allowed in the '00s:

(Source: Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia)

Late-nighter of the week

The bad news for Conan O'Brien: He lost his show. The good news: At least he made it into Rumblings and Grumblings with this last-minute quip:

"Yesterday, there were rallies for me in cities across the country, including Chicago. You can tell things are bad when even Cubs fans feel sorry for you."

Tweet of the week

OK, so this is actually a couple of weeks old. Sue us. But here's another Twitter classic from Late Show genius Eric Stangel (@EricStangel):

"Jose Offerman, managing Dominican winter league game, punches umpire. Oakland Raiders considering him to replace Tom Cable."

Headliner of the week

Finally, this election news just in from Sportspickle.com:

"YANKEES SUCK" WINS MASSACHUSETTS
SPECIAL ELECTION AS A WRITE-IN

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com