Small-market MLB teams such as the A’s still won’t spend and have opted out of keeping their stars

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As Major League Baseball comes back to life after a three-month lockout, with sudden spring training underway and players embracing family members before declaring themselves in the best shape of their lives, the Oakland Athletics have traded a star player for an overabundance of prospects.

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Truly, nature heals.

The deal, which sent first baseman Matt Olson, Oakland’s leading hitter by far last season, to the Atlanta Braves, was notable for what it said about how the lockout had fundamentally changed the economics of baseball. That is to say, it did not change them at all.

As the lockdown dragged on through the winter, and even as games were canceled until last week, what was striking was how little was on the table. MLB’s players’ union had already backed away from changes that could have been transformative, like allowing players to reach free agency sooner or shifting a greater share of revenue from teams in big markets to teams in smaller ones. markets, and instead haggled with the owners. on what was essentially fringe money.

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For many years now, baseball has seen only a tiny fraction of its 30 teams spend near its luxury tax levels, unlike other North American leagues, where lots of space is relatively rare. salary cap. The New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers are the only teams to exceed the tax level more than twice since 2003. More importantly, 12 teams had payrolls below 100 million US dollars last year, when the luxury tax hit $210 million. . Seven other teams had less than US$150 million. Two-thirds of the league was no less than US$60 million, or a few superstars, from having to pay the tax. By comparison, 27 of the NBA’s 30 teams were within $16 million of the league’s luxury tax count last season.
The MLBPA has long argued that too many teams are too willing to run on the cheap, and went so far as to launch a grievance in 2018 that claimed four teams — Miami, Pittsburgh, Tampa and Oakland — pocketed the money. revenue sharing instead. to invest it in improving their lists. (The league attempted to have this grievance dropped under the new CBA, but it remains unresolved.)

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But the new deal contains no mechanism to fix the problem, as Oakland was quick to point out. In Olson, they had a 27-year-old corner infielder who led the team in hits, runs, doubles, home runs, RBI and walks in 2021, and was two years away from free agency. As in their own way, they fired him while they could still score some big loot, which they did, securing four Braves prospects. If two or three of them are in the majors soon, Oakland could even get four or five seasons out of them before trading them for prospects as well. You buy an athletic jersey with a name and number on it at your own risk.
Notably, the other side of the trade sees the Braves, recently crowned World Series champions, nab Olson so they no longer need incumbent first baseman Freddie Freeman, the 2020 NL MVP and occasional Canadian, who is a free agent and owes a monster contract. Freeman, 32, will get a deal that will significantly overpay him for his declining years, because that’s how it works in baseball. Very few teams have the guts for those contracts, which is why the Braves didn’t just hold their noses and give the face of the franchise the contract he and much of the fan base swore to. were probably waiting. Letting him go also means the Braves, with a payroll of just over $150 million last season, will find it easier to steer clear of that luxury tax number, which rises to 230. million dollars in 2022.

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And that’s the problem with the just-concluded baseball negotiations: Even though the owners gave in to raising the luxury tax levels far beyond what they originally proposed, nothing compels a team to overtake them, or even to a shout from them. A few teams in large markets will spend, a third of the league will spend less than half of top teams, and another large tier will spend enough to be at least competitive. But with the playoffs expanded to 12 teams, the incentive to spend aggressively has just been reduced for this middle tier of teams.

And while the A’s swap wasn’t surprising given the team’s history, it comes as Athletics try to hammer out the final details of a plan for a new stadium to replace the creaky ancient Colosseum. Naturally, the team expects a lot of help from taxpayers to pay for that.

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