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Rays could come out on losing end of baseball’s labor war

John Romano | Some of the issues at stake are the exact things Tampa Bay uses to compete against higher-payroll teams.
Joey Wendle was a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2018 and an All-Star in 2021, but once he became arbitration-eligible his value to the Rays diminished. Baseball's current labor strife could hasten the departure of players like Wendle from Tampa Bay.
Joey Wendle was a Rookie of the Year candidate in 2018 and an All-Star in 2021, but once he became arbitration-eligible his value to the Rays diminished. Baseball's current labor strife could hasten the departure of players like Wendle from Tampa Bay. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Dec. 10, 2021

ST. PETERSBURG — Typically, I would not recommend paying attention to a labor dispute in baseball.

The details are often tedious and the spin control is atrocious. Team owners and players both want you to believe that the game is their greatest concern when, in fact, it’s always a tug-of-war over cash.

Unfortunately, this latest dustup is worth watching in Tampa Bay.

Partially, because it is veering in the direction of the first prolonged stoppage in more than 25 years.

But mainly, because they are fighting about issues that the Rays have manipulated better than any other franchise in the past decade to help them beat their richer colleagues.

In other words, this &%#@ matters in Tampa Bay.

To put it in an office-like context, there are three pay levels in baseball. (There are some variations in this process, but I’ll stick to the basics to make it simpler).

Most players in their first three seasons are entitled only to baseball’s minimum wage, which was $570,500 in 2021. In seasons 4-5-6, players can file for arbitration, which allows them to seek a salary comparable to their peers, relative to performance and service time. After six seasons, players are free agents, allowed to shop themselves to any team in the marketplace.

The Rays have been — and this is not too strong of a word — geniuses when it comes to building a roster filled mostly with players in those earlier ranges of service time. It is how they are able to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox while boasting a payroll that is a fraction of the size. Rays players aren’t cheaper because they’re less talented; they’re cheaper because they have less leverage.

It is also why they are continually trading established players for prospects, partly to reduce payroll but also to stock up on that next wave of younger, cheaper players.

The problem, insofar as Tampa Bay is concerned, is that too many other teams have begun to embrace these philosophies. Maybe not to the same extreme as the Rays, but certainly in spirit. And it has, essentially, wiped out baseball’s middle class of players.

Teams now covet two types of players: the young guys making minimum wage and the superstars. A lot of mid-range players are getting squeezed out as soon as they reach arbitration or free agency.

The median salary in baseball — the point where half the players make more and half the players make less — has fallen from $1.65 million to $1.15 million in the past six years, according to an Associated Press study. That’s a 30 percent drop in median salary for a sport that saw revenues rise to an estimated $9.9 billion in 2019. That sounds a lot like market manipulation.

And the players association is rightfully concerned about a system that basically encourages teams to devalue players in their 30s while putting a higher premium on younger players whose salaries are artificially limited.

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(It should be pointed out the players association is the group that negotiated this deal in the first place. At the time, they weren’t as interested in fighting for the rights of younger players. It was only when younger players became more valuable in the eyes of general managers that the union realized it was at the expense of the middle-of-the-road veteran player.)

So what does it all mean for the Rays?

Players want to revamp the starting line for arbitration and free agency. They’d like arbitration available after two years, and they want free agency closer to a player’s prime. In the other words, when a player is closer to 26-27 instead of 29-30.

Those type of changes would do serious damage to Tampa Bay’s current business model. As it is, the Rays tend to move players when they are arbitration eligible (Joey Wendle, Willy Adames, Diego Castillo just in the past year) or when they’re nearing free agency.

If those clocks are moved up earlier, Tampa Bay’s ability to hold on to players could grow even shorter.

“We already have teams in smaller markets that struggle to compete,” commissioner Rob Manfred said on the day of the lockout. “Shortening the period of time that they control players makes it even harder for them to compete. It’s also bad for fans in those markets.”

Now, this is where spin control comes in. If the owners were really interested in helping smaller markets, there would be less bellyaching about revenue sharing and more emphasis on making sure Tampa Bay, Miami, Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Oakland could compete on equal footing. The odds that owners give in to the players AND help low-revenue teams seem slim.

Philosophically, I agree with the players. The system is broken.

What a fan in Tampa Bay has to worry about is whether the solution comes at the expense of how the Rays win.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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