In Major League Baseball’s free agency this season, huge contracts were handed out to superstar players, with Manny Machado getting $300 million from the San Diego Padres and Bryce Harper taking home the biggest haul in MLB history when he signed for $330 million over 13 years with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Meanwhile, on the welfare line that is baseball in Florida, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, Blake Snell, will be taking home $573,700, just $15,500 more than he made last season and a paltry $18,700 more than the guy at the end of the bench pulls in at the league minimum of $555,000.
Snell, for his part, was disappointed.
The award-winning pitcher told the Tampa Bay Times that, “It’s disappointing. You want fair. But at the same time they don’t have to do it, so I understand the business side of it.’’
Through his agent, Snell released a statement elaborating on the “business side”.
“The Rays have the right under the collective bargaining agreement to renew me at or near the league-minimum salary. They also have the ability to more adequately compensate me, as other organizations have done with players who have similar achievements to mine. The Rays chose the former. I will have no further comment and look forward to competing with my teammates and field staff in our quest to win the World Series in 2019.”
Indeed, the Rays took advantage of MLB’s salary structure, similar in some ways to rookie contracts in other sports, where teams are not required to give players who are not yet eligible for arbitration any raise at all, provided that the salary they offer a returning player is both at least the league minimum and no less than 80 percent of the player’s salary from the previous year.
This is not, however, a case of the Rays purely being cheapskates.
Unlike the NFL and NBA, which tend to pay high-profile rookies fairly richly — the NBA pays the 14th overall pick at the end of the draft lottery $2.878 million while Sony Michel of the Patriots, the 31st pick in the 2018 NFL draft, got $5.08 million just as a signing bonus before he ever played a down — baseball instead brings players up on minor league contracts, paying them at or near the league minimum until they are eligible for arbitration after their third year.
The Red Sox are in a similar situation with infielder Rafael Devers, who is in his last pre-arbitration year and makes just $614,500, according (as with all salaries cited from here onward) to Spotrac.
Aaron Judge of the Yankees, already a budding superstar, will make $684,300 this year, and his similarly high-profile teammate, catcher Gary Sanchez, has the Yankees on the hook for $669,800.
MLB players simply do not make the really big money before salary arbitration.
Still, going out and winning the Cy Young Award and then getting paid your sport’s version of minimum wage can’t help but feel like a bit of a cheap move.
Snell’s bigger problem might be if he hits arbitration and the notoriously impoverished Rays, with their $51.7 million payroll, will be limited in how much they can offer, and in their ability to pay whatever the arbitrator awards.
So Snell might not be able to truly cash in until he’s had six years in the league and can finally be an unrestricted free agent like Machado and Harper. The 2018 Cy Young will feel like forever ago, even if Snell continues to pitch at a high but just below “best in the league” level between now and 2022.
The future for Tampa Bay of this lowball contract could come back to bite the team, however.
If Snell has a great year, maybe even contends for awards and makes the All-Star Game, he might become yet another major leaguer from a small market team who gets traded to the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers as the team that developed him can’t afford to keep him.
But that’s a problem for the league and the players’ union to work out…and it’s not one the players are going to be in any mood to be team-friendly about with rumors swirling around like a maelstrom of labor unrest when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021.
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