Baseball's top salaries are declining, as evidenced by smaller qualifying offer

Last offseason was marred by a lack of spending and perceived interest in several of the sport’s biggest stars.

Even beyond the fact that teams weren’t pursuing once-in-a-generation stars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, the league’s biggest spenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Yankees were actively trying to get under the competitive balance tax rather than improve their team to win a title.

Now the fruits of the ownerships’ labor to suppress salaries is truly showing, as The Athletic’s Jayson Stark reported on Friday that the qualifying offer will drop — from $17.9 million to $17.8 million — for the first time in its eight years of existence.

Salaries for the league’s best players are down

The qualifying offer is a tool teams may use to keep or get compensation for an impending free agent. Its value is determined by the average of the top 125 salaries in the sport, meaning that baseball’s best players took a pay cut last year. It was big news last year when payrolls dropped overall for the first time in nearly a decade, and this continues the trend.

Some major contracts went off the books from last year to this — Joe Mauer, David Wright and James Shields were all making at least $20 million — but that meant that they were not adequately replaced by new major contracts. Yes, Harper and Machado landed record contracts, but the middle tier of free agency in the $10-20 million range was largely ignored.

After starting at $13.3 million in the 2012-13 offseason, the qualifying offer has grown by approximately $766,000 or 5 percent each year. But it has seriously stagnated starting in 2016-17, when it went from $17.2 million to $17.4 million to $17.9 million to actually dropping. The fact that it would go down is even more upsetting to players since they would expect the QO to rise to $18.3 million just off of inflation.

Houston Astros starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) pitches against the Tampa Bay Rays during the first inning of Game 5 of a baseball American League Division Series in Houston, Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)
Astros starter Gerrit Cole will be the top free agent pitcher on the market this winter. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke)

What will happen going forward?

Perhaps the most concerning aspect of this is that there’s not much reason to believe spending will increase much in the near future. Several owners have already announced that they will maintain or slash salaries, which has drawn the ire of the MLB Players Association.

There should be some massive contracts handed out this winter — looking at you Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon and possibly Stephen Strasburg or J.D. Martinez — but as last winter showed, a few big contracts may not make up for the disappearance of the middle class. $20+ million contracts of Félix Hernández, Russell Martin and Alex Gordon ending won’t help either.

If teams like the Boston Red Sox follow through on promises to slash payroll by around $40 million — despite raising ticket prices and record league revenue — players will have even more reason to be angry. Teams should be trying to compete rather than save money, and this is yet another sign of where too many teams’ preferences lie.

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