Last winter, I received a nice letter from a fan asking if we might stop writing about money matters in baseball during the off-season, and write more about the game.
Sounds great, but it's impossible. Everything done in the major leagues is predicated on money or lack thereof, and Albert Belle's $55 million contract will make all teams more diligent about how they spend their dollars. In this strange world created by former union leader Marvin Miller (who began the salary spiral) and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf (who is responsible for signing Belle and altering baseball's salary structure dramatically), service time is becoming more important than velocity or speed, minor-leaguers more valuable than solid veterans like B. J. Surhoff.
Let us count the ways Belle's contract changes baseball:
1. There will be a labor agreement, perhaps as soon as this week.
Reinsdorf was the leading hawk in the owners' war against the players association (he once complained, "Baseball is the only industry where I have to pay someone what my dumbest competitor pays." Then on Tuesday he told reporters he asked Belle what he wanted, and then gave it to him.
From the perspective of the other owners, Reinsdorf is a Benedict Arnold, betraying the cause he has trumpeted, and in signing Belle, he effectively undercut the other owners. Orioles owner Peter Angelos was prepared to open the team's books, with the blessing of acting commissioner Bud Selig, and show how a club that regularly sells out can lose $3 million to $6 million in the terrible business of baseball. The intent, of course, was to demonstrate the plight of the small-market teams like Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, demonstrate a need for a drag on salaries.
Then Reinsdorf signed Belle, leaving Angelos and the other owners dangling. The average fan would respond to Angelos by saying, sure, baseball's really hurting for money; that's why Belle's making $11 million per year.
The players association dominates the high ground in its fight against the owners, who had better take the deal Randy Levine negotiated for them -- it's about as good as they're going to get.
2. The small markets have even a smaller chance of winning.
Oh, sure, the revenue sharing that is inevitable will help. But Belle's contract ensures that teams like Pittsburgh and Milwaukee won't be able to keep the game's best talents. Suppose Kansas City is operating with a payroll of $20 million, and it gets $5 million in revenue sharing (numbers pulled out of thin air).
Then suppose that the Royals have a young star who drives in 100 runs in his rookie year. The youngster really blossoms by his sixth year in the majors. The player will be in line, through the natural progression of arbitration and in the salary structure created by the Belle signing, to earn around $7 million or $8
million. The Royals cannot possibly devote that much money to one player -- one-third of their payroll? -- and they cannot possibly sign him as a free agent. Teams cannot win without star players.
"What you'll see in some cities," said one major-league executive, "is that small-market teams won't even try to win anymore. They can't compete, their fans will know it, and their attendance will level off. So instead of spending as much money as they can, they'll cut back to $13 million or $15 million, and go with young players and veterans who cost them nothing. They'll be part of the league, but they won't really be competitive."
3. Major-league teams will covet minor-league prospects and young major-leaguers above all others.
Under the next labor agreement, the minimum salary will be $175,000. So who do you think will be more valuable to the Orioles -- Rocky Coppinger, who won 10 games and is in line to earn around $250,000 to $300,000 next year, or Scott Erickson, who won 13 games while making $3 million last year?
Teams could become more reluctant to use top prospects until they're absolutely sure they're ready to play in the big leagues. Orioles pitching prospect Jimmy Haynes could be a good example of this. They could let him work out of the bullpen next year, as an extra starter, something which could help his confidence.
But they won't do it. Every day he's in the majors Haynes will be one day closer to being eligible for arbitration and a dramatic escalation in salary. The Orioles will leave him in the minors until they're absolutely sure he can contribute. Teams will be far less inclined to develop potential stars in the majors.
On the other hand, young players who are pegged as journeymen will have more opportunity. From the Orioles' perspective, would it be better to pay a guy like Eugene Kingsale $150,000 to be a spare outfielder or someone like Mike Devereaux $1,000,000? Devereaux might be the better player, but Kingsale would be worth more, dollar for dollar.
4. Teams will worry more about marketing and less about winning.