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MLBPA Boss Fehr: Don't Expect Salary Cap

In past couple of months, there's been a steadily growing buzz about implementing a salary cap during the next collective bargaining agreement between players and the MLB's 30 owners. The idea of a salary cap has been a common refrain among a number of the league's mid-market owners, but the idea received a renewed push when Red Sox owner John Henry and President Larry Luchino (a longtime Orioles man) endorsed the idea last month.

So, what are the odds of major league baseball finally instituting "cost-certainty" via a salary cap during the next set of negotiations with the players' union? Not too good, if you believe the quotes yesterday from Fehr himself, via's Barry Bloom.

"We've been down this road before and we saw where this led us," Fehr said. "We spent an awful lot of time after the strike and again in 2002 and 2006, tying revenue sharing to the competitive balance tax and the free-agency system. It's difficult for me to envision a situation where we'd make a wholesale change in the system. It's nearly impossible for me believe that the players would be in favor of a salary cap."

It's worth noting that negotiations on the next collective bargaining agreement probably won't start until the 2011, so there will be at least a couple more seasons for owners to keep talking up the idea of a salary cap. Still, it seems profoundly unlikely that the idea will gain enough traction to push toward critical mass, which might require another player holdout or strike.

You'd think after the way the last one went, baseball would avoid that kind of nuclear standoff at any cost, and it probably will. Still, there's an equally significant factor that might undercut the idea of a salary cap: Some of the smaller-market owners, who happen to be the people a salary cap would be most designed to help.

Major League Baseball, as currently constructed, has a drastic gap in competitive equity in the free market, a fact made crystal clear nearly every year by the Yankees. While New York's teams can afford to splurge hundreds of millions of dollars on free agents, teams like Kansas City and Pittsburgh often feel obliged to dump their top talent at its apex to avoid having to pay those players the salaries they deserve.

The idea behind the ethicacy of such a system is that, if a team builds from within well enough, it can earn more money through ticket sales, a TV deal and eventually become a "big market" team. There are always going to be geographic flaws in such logic, but there is some underlying truth to the concept.

Yet one of the very owners whose team should be amidst that transition is banging the drum against a salary cap because, essentially, he doesn't want his salary bills to balloon any more than they already have.

Who's that mystery man? Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg. Here's what he told the Tampa Tribune's Marc Lancaster last month:

"I don't know if it would help us. I'm not a believer in a salary cap. I believe in a salary structure, and unfortunately the word 'cap' has got a connotation to it. You cap salaries, that's great. But if there's a minimum, I can't afford to run my business. So then you have to share more revenue, but teams don't want to share more revenue. If we think about it, not about money but about competition, I think we could come up with the right answers."

More revenue sharing? That's not going to fly. So, is Sternberg really saying that the floor of a salary cap would be too expensive for the reigning AL champions to afford? It seems like he is, just as the Rockies might have made the same claim a year prior while holding the NL pennant.

It's all part of the strange oligarchical demographics of baseball's ownership groups. The question now is which strain of thought will win out. What do people think? Will we see a salary cap in the next collective bargaining agreement? Should we? Would it be good for game or just slow teams' development?

By Cameron Smith  |  March 11, 2009; 1:29 PM ET
Categories:  Rays  
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What? You mean forcing teams to have to pay players a fair wage for their skills so teams couldn't trot out a "AAAA" squad like in years past? Why that is actually a sensible idea. But it would force the "small market" teams to have to forgo the payoff money they get from the Red Sox and Yankees to keep this sordid affair running.
(How exactly is Washington a small-market again?)
And because of that there is no way MLB and MLBPA goes for it. We know the NBA Players will fold in the face of a srtike/lockout. The main question is will the MLBPA? I hope cooler heads prevail and we don't have to find out.

Posted by: compucat | March 11, 2009 2:21 PM | Report abuse

As a fan of one of the so-called haves, I am, not surprisingly, with John Henry. I think if financially succesful teams are going to subsidize franchises that perform less well at the gate, then those owners should take the subsidy and devote it to their baseball product. It was disgusting that the Carl Pohlads and Vince Naimolis were pocketing their subsidies rather than using it to upgrade their product. MLB should impose a rule that the minimum payroll should equal the revenue sharing a team gets.

Market demographics are a major factor in revenues, but let's also not ignore that, at various times in the past 2 decades, Baltimore, Toronto, Cleveland, and even Denver have had among the top drawing teams and, Colorado excluded, the top payrolls. Teams have an obligation to cultivate and sustain their markets, not just feed their fans the "we're small market, we can't compete" lines. Boston is not inherrently a great market, with the drammatic decline in population and industry since the 1960s, yet they have cultivated their [obnoxious, front runnning to some] fan base and have numerous revenue sources because they have put money back into the team and associated ventures, like NESN. The failure to have a minimum salary allows owners in KC and elsewhere to not develop their markets.

Very few teams have it so inherrently unfair that they cannot field competitive teams, assuming their owners are not pocketing the revenue sharing payoffs and the GMs are not bad. You need that combo, really. TB and MN have shown that a good GM can keep a system stocked well enough to compete year after year, and Beinfest and Beane have shown that you can compete in even the most woeful markets.

Sternberg has perhaps made the best case for his point by showing that a winner does not need a floor salary. But I think it would be detrimental to the long run strength of MLB if he were to pull revenue sharing out and let his team walk, then say, "We cannot compete vs. RSN and the Evil Empire."

Posted by: jca-CrystalCity | March 11, 2009 5:59 PM | Report abuse

Some kind of revenue sharing/salary cap/floor system works in the NFL (very well), the NBA, the NHL. It's going to come to MLB too.

The Yankees can throw $200 Million in salaries out the door every year, the Bucs simply can't. It is not because the Pirates management is cheap, not because they do not want to win, it is because the Yankees have a local radio deal that is worth more than all revenue sources for the Pirates combined. Is anyone surprised that the Pirates cannot compete? One small market team in the last 10 years has won it all.

How long can Kansas City hang on under the current system? Or Pittsburgh, Minnesota, Oakland or Tampa? Soon, contraction will be in the air. I wonder, how many 25-man rosters the union is willing to see go away in order to protect those high-end salaried players?

Posted by: dfh123 | March 12, 2009 8:39 AM | Report abuse

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