Someone should do something about all of the payroll disparity

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USA Today published an opinion piece by reporter Bob Nightengale on Tuesday, titled “MLB’s payroll disparity has become laughable, threatening the integrity of sport.” Don’t worry, it’s not a screed bemoaning the spending of the Dodgers, the team that is heavily featured in the intro to the piece. Nightengale is pointing out how much the Dodgers spend (a lot) as well as some other heavy spenders, in order to contrast them with all of the teams spending under $100 million, in some cases, much, much less than that.

Nightengale’s point is that something needs to be done to get rid of the payroll disparity in question, “before it’s too late.” He puts the onus on the league’s owners and the Players Association to figure out what that something is, which is fine — they are the ones in a position to actually do something about the game’s economics, after all — but it’s a bit disappointing that there aren’t any suggestions here for just how this goal can be accomplished.

Don’t get me wrong, “Won’t someone do something about all of the bad things?” is good in the sense that there is a recognition that there are bad things that something needs to be done about. It’s just that, when you have a spot as significant as Nightengale’s at USA Today, and you’re writing an opinion piece, you need to take some bigger swings. Those media gigs are the ones that help set the tone for how people feel about league, and vagueness or any kind of noncommittal attitude will just make it feel like the thing that is being written about isn’t all that important.

Nightengale takes the time to point out that yes, the Tampa Bay Rays are in position to make the postseason once again despite their payroll, the fifth-lowest in the league, but they’re en route in large part due to their schedule, which allows them to feast on the Orioles — a bottomfeeder that is bad on purpose, that 11 teams in the league haven’t been able to play once all year? Meanwhile, due to the way divisional play works out, Tampa has had 16 games against the Orioles, and are 15-1 against them.

Similarly, the Reds and Padres don’t get to play the Pirates at the same clip, and San Diego is stuck in a division with multiple teams that are trying to win while both vie for one of the NL’s wild card slots. Some of this is standard stuff, of course: there are always going to be bad teams, and an unbalanced schedule means some clubs will get the bonus of being able to play those bad teams more often than others. Nightengale is correct to point out that it’s more of a problem when it’s less organic, however: the Orioles are bad on purpose, in order to save money, while the Pirates are bad… well, not as much on purpose as Baltimore, no, but you don’t see them trying to spend money to look half-decent on the field while they repair the damage of the previous regime under Ben Cherington, do you?

As I wrote back in 2019, when a new record was set for teams with at least 100 wins in a season, hitting the century mark is relatively easy when the other teams aren’t trying. Having so many awful teams, many of which are bad on purpose, means that the best teams have inflated records that belie their true talent levels, while some middling teams will benefit in a way that makes them look, at least in the standings, like a worthy postseason club.

The Rays are 15-1 against the Orioles, and 63-47 against everyone else. Obviously, 63-47 is still good, but a .572 win percentage pales in comparison to their current .619 mark. It’s not just the Rays, of course, that get to play the Orioles an inordinate amount of time, but their current division lead and record is a product, at least to a degree, of having faced Baltimore much more regularly than the Yankees or Red Sox have to this point. That’ll all come out in the wash by the end of the year, obviously, but that doesn’t help teams from the divisions that don’t get to play a club that’s being horrible on purpose almost 20 times in a season, does it?

There are ways where today’s MLB is obviously better than past iterations, but for some reason that doesn’t really apply when it comes to building better teams. A whole lot of flawed clubs are thriving, anyway, because there are teams that aren’t even pretending to try around that they can feast on. Nightengale is right that something needs to be done, but rather than leave it at the vagueness he did, let’s actually consider what can be done.

A salary floor would be good, sure, but as I’ve written, I find it hard to believe we’ll get one that doesn’t also attempt to further cap overall spending. And as has been pointed out elsewhere, on Twitter and in the original reporting on the proposed salary floor, a salary floor wouldn’t stop a team from deciding to pay one free agent a bunch of money in order to avoid incurring whatever penalty not hitting the floor entails, and that wouldn’t necessarily be the same thing as trying to be competitive. More is needed than just saying “spend $100 million or there will be trouble,” especially when it’s unclear just what that trouble would be.

Making it so that it’s harder to not spend at least $100 million would work even better than imposing a floor. Raise the minimum salary — triple it, even. Change the way service time works so that arbitration and the years prior to free agency can’t be so easily gamed. Change the rules around how revenue-sharing dollars can be spent, so we stop ending up with vague, unverifiable explanations for where that money is going — tie the reception of receiving revenue-sharing dollars at all to a salary floor, somehow, so that teams aren’t just able to pocket this cash or hand it to investors whose purpose is mostly to inflate franchise values for a future sale or the purpose of low-interest borrowing in the presence. A whole lot more needs to be done than just implementing a floor.

Of course, the league isn’t necessarily going to be for any of this, but they don’t have to be thrilled about the changes, either. They should still be proposed, should still be fought for, because Nightengale is right: this is a bad situation that only seems to be getting worse.

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