SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — A handful of free-spending owners in Major League Baseball have made some of the game’s other owners a little nervous.
Players’ union head Tony Clark doesn’t mind that development one bit.
“Baseball is doing very well,” Clark said on Saturday as the first full slate of spring training games began in Florida and Arizona.
Clark’s perspective isn’t shared by all. There’s a group of owners — including Pittsburgh’s Bob Nutting — who believe that a recent jump in free agent spending is part of the reason smaller market teams, like the Pirates, struggle to remain competitive. It’s one of the reasons MLB recently formed an economic reform committee.
“It’s the single biggest issue facing the Pittsburgh Pirates,” Nutting told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Friday. “Competitive disparity, revenue disparity and payroll disparity are all real challenges.”
This offseason, salaries have risen following last year’s agreement on a five-year labor contract with the players’ association. Payrolls rose 12.6% to a $4.56 billion last year, breaking the previous record set in 2017, and are set to go even higher this year.
The New York Mets, entering their third season under owner Steve Cohen, project a payroll upwards of about $370 million — which would smash the previous high of $291 million by the 2015 Los Angeles Dodgers.
Some so-called smaller market teams have even joined the spending surge. The San Diego Padres have been very active with free agents over the past few years, adding standouts like shortstop Xander Bogaerts.
Clark said that’s evidence that teams from markets of all sizes can compete financially and on the field, noting that the Padres have seen an uptick in fan interest.
“Teams were competing, engaging in the free agent market and created a level of excitement that I would think is a positive,” Clark said.
There’s no doubt that economic disparity exists in baseball. While the Mets are set to spend around $370 million on payroll, others like the Orioles, Rays, Pirates and Athletics are expected to be in the $60-80 million range.
The causes for that disparity are where friction occurs between MLBPA and MLB.
“The question that should be asked in regards to one team’s payroll versus another, is whether or not that team is making a conscious decision to have its payroll there, or whether it has the ability to increase its payroll,” Clark said.
“The answer is the latter, not the former.”
MINOR LEAGUE UNION
Clark said he remains “optimistic” that ongoing labor negotiations between the MLBPA’s minor-league wing and MLB will continue to progress in a positive direction.
More than 5,500 minor league baseball players formed a union in September in an effort to boost annual salaries as low as $10,400. Negotiations began in November to secure the first labor agreement for the minor leagues.
“Has some progress been made? Yes,” Clark said. “But there’s still tangible work that needs to be done.”
Clark said that some of MLB’s proposals during the negotiation process have included ways to further contract the minor leagues in exchange for improvements.
Clark said that kind of proposal is a “non-starter.”
“The idea of the league having the ability to cut minor league jobs or contract teams further, on the heels of the 40-plus teams contracted a few years ago, is troublesome,” Clark said.
MLB ended the Professional Baseball Agreement that governed the relationship between the majors and minors in late 2020, after minor league seasons were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Affiliates were cut from a minimum of 160 to 120, the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues that had governed the minors since 1901 was shut down and MLB took over operation of the minors.
Commissioner Rob Manfred said last week that MLB is prepared for whatever happens to the financially troubled company that owns regional broadcast rights for 14 teams after Diamond Sports Group skipped about $140 million in interest payments.
Diamond is a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc., and its regional networks broadcasts games of 14 MLB, 16 NBA and 12 NHL teams. Diamond said as of Sept. 30 it had debt of $8.674 billion. It has nearly $1 billion in rights payments, mostly to baseball teams, due in the first quarter this year.
If MLB does take over distribution from Diamond, Manfred said it would not be able to replace 100% of the revenue in the short term.
Clark said the MLBPA has been in touch with Manfred’s office about the issue.
“They have an ability to address the (regional sports networks) and have told us they have a plan in place,” Clark said. “What we don’t know is anything beyond that and how it’s going to affect the system.
“That will require a conversation.”
AP Baseball Writers Ronald Blum and Jay Cohen contributed to this report.
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