Around this time of year, baseball fans partake in a favorite pastime that unites large and small markets, winners and losers, snobs and casual fans.
Complaining about mushrooming salaries marries the masses, and with free agency officially kicking off today, the season is nigh for Kyle Lohse, a sub.-500 pitcher, to join Gil Meche, A.J. Burnett and so many before them whose big-bucks contracts inspired gasps, laughs or expletives, and sometimes an amalgamation of the three.
Now, a request: Do yourselves a favor and stop. Try to numb yourselves to the money. It's only getting bigger. As ludicrous as some of these contracts seem – and, indeed, as some of them are – it is futile to view them as such. Because over the last six years, baseball has seen a dramatic change in the way players are paid.
Like, not enough.
OK, take a deep breath. Work with me here. This takes a bit of explaining, and even then, nurses, teachers and all of the other underpaid do-gooders may still think it's insane.
In 1992, when Bud Selig took over as baseball's commissioner, the sport's gross revenues were $1.5 billion. Payrolls from that season added up to about $784 million, meaning 52.3 percent of baseball's money went back to the players. By 2001, the year following the bull-market offseason in which Alex Rodriguez signed his 10-year, $252 million deal, the money going toward players had increased to 56.1 percent, even with revenues at $3.5 billion.
Revenues didn't stop growing, jumping another billion dollars in the next four years. Salaries, though, nearly stagnated, and by 2005, owners were taking the majority of the profit, giving 48.7 percent back to players.
Today, the numbers are shocking. Baseball claims it will reap more than $6 billion in revenue this season, a number that nearly matches the mighty NFL. And yet the sum of the 30 MLB teams' opening day payrolls for 2007 was approximately $2,478,970,000 – about 41.3 percent of the gross revenues.
In contrast, the NFL paid its players $3.2 billion last season, more than 50 percent of its revenues.
So it's not necessarily that MLB players, individually, are underpaid. It's that compared to the percentages received by their predecessors, they are getting shortchanged big-time.
Now, there are explanations. Baseball is experiencing its greatest windfall of young talent in years, and teams can keep a player's salary close to the $400,000 minimum for his first three seasons. It incentivizes teams to hoard their prospects. Lower-revenue teams that do so have at least a fighting chance to lure a high-priced free agent. And revenue juggernauts, such as the Yankees, understand that for every Phil Hughes, Joba Chamberlain and Ian Kennedy, they can have a little fun in the market.
Once those young talents approach their arbitration years, teams are making greater efforts to lock them into reasonable long-term deals rather than allow their value to spike as a dozen suitors bat their eyelashes during free agency. Of the 143 free agents available this offseason, only 12 are in their 20s. The youngest is Corey Patterson, who turned 28 in August. The best are Carlos Silva and Lohse, mediocre pitchers who could finagle $10 million-a-year deals because all of the cash floating around.
Free agency, accordingly, has gotten dumber because the rest of baseball has gotten smarter. It's the one place where teams have not learned to restrain themselves, which is why Scott Boras took $81 million in guaranteed money for A-Rod, said ptooey and asked the free market – the one so bullish the Winter Meetings should be held in Pamplona – to judge Rodriguez. It will likely render a verdict of $300 million or so.
The rest of the class is flaccid, though that matters little. Boras wanted $20 million a year for center fielder Andruw Jones last season. He can probably get $16 million, and that's after a season in which Jones found himself hitting .199 a week before the All-Star break. Torii Hunter, coming off a career year, will get $75 million for five years, even though he turns 33 in July and has never reached base 34 percent of the time. Already Philadelphia gave J.C. Romero, a middling middle reliever, $12 million for three years, and the Yankees lavished 36-year-old catcher Jorge Posada with a four-year, $52 million contract.
Perhaps the most interesting subplot, aside from the A-Rod drama that's certain to hog the headlines, will come from the latest Japanese contingent to join the major leagues. Kosuke Fukudome is a former MVP, Hiroki Kuroda winner of the Cy Young equivalent and Masahide Kobayashi the country's top closer. None is Daisuke Matsuzaka, worthy of a $103 million investment. And teams can only hope none is Kei Igawa, on whom the Yankees wasted $46 million for 12 major-league starts.
Yes, Igawa's contract does illustrate that when it comes to free agency, baseball teams need to lock themselves in cages. They won't. They've got MLB.com making hundreds of millions of dollars and the MLB Network primed to launch in 2009. They've got sponsorships out the yin-yang and television contracts pumping in cash.
With the revenues going toward players dwindling, they've got the air of collusion permeating too. So the more revenue grows – and Selig has said he expects it to – the more the players' agents and union will demand. Soon enough, the split should be up to at least 45 percent going to the players. And because there is no such thing as spending in free agency – only overspending – you know what that will necessitate.
An even bigger dose of offseason novocaine.