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‘Embarrassing’ report of MLB championship belt stirs more labor animosity

Rizzo celebrates with Willson Contreras after scoring on Kyle Schwarber's single in the first inning Saturday night in Texas.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Just when it looked as though a winter of labor animosity might slip quietly into the background of the start of a new season, a report Friday about a toy award given to teams for keeping arbitration salaries down has riled up players all over again.

Players throughout baseball, including those in the Cubs’ clubhouse, reacted to the suggestion of collaborative salary suppression in the report by The Athletic much the same way as they had throughout the spring over back-to-back winters of delayed free agency.

First baseman Anthony Rizzo called it ‘‘embarrassing’’ for the game to see the revelation that Major League Baseball annually gives a plastic championship belt to the team that most effectively holds down arbitration salaries. The belt has been passed around for more than a decade. Sources say the Cubs never have won it.

‘‘Obviously, the system is broken,’’ Rizzo said of the overall state of salary stagnation in a $10 billion-a-year industry with rising revenues. ‘‘And the thing that masks it all is we have the 1 percent of the 1 percenters, even less than that, getting these mega-deals that make the big headlines. But you’re not factoring in all the other guys that are going through the process right now of getting to that point.’’

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In fact, an Associated Press analysis published in the last week projects a drop in MLB’s average salary for an unprecedented second consecutive season despite increases in industry revenues and such recent free-agent deals as Manny Machado’s 10-year, $300 million pact and Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 million deal.

‘‘When it comes time for the [collective-bargaining agreement] talks, we’ll be prepared,’’ Rizzo said. ‘‘I’m sure that Major League Baseball will be prepared.’’

Players across the majors again have raised the prospect of a strike, with the expiration of the current CBA still nearly three years away.

‘‘Definitely, anything’s possible at this point,’’ said Cubs reliever Mike Montgomery, who signed a $2.44 million deal for 2019 in his first winter of arbitration eligibility. ‘‘I didn’t think that we would be seeing some of the issues that we are. And I’m not saying that the players are always perfect because I know sometimes players come off in fans’ eyes as greedy and this and that. I like to see that side of it. But I also see the side of the players because I live it, and I think it’s OK for the players to express that, as long as they know why they’re expressing it and they truly understand it.’’

General manager Jed Hoyer wouldn’t get into the specifics of The Athletic report, other than to generally call the arbitration process ‘‘often misunderstood.’’

‘‘I’ll say this: As a general manager, I want to be paying our players a lot in arbitration,’’ Hoyer said. ‘‘That means they’ve done special things, they’ve produced, they’ve pitched well, they’ve been part of championship teams.

‘‘We’re dealing with that right now. Arbitration costs are really escalating, and that’s a good thing. That means we’ve had success. That means we have good players.’’

The organized efforts and toy award are at least bad optics — and worse to many players.

‘‘Owners in all sports leagues and commissioners have a lot of power, and I think, with that, they’re more apt to abuse that power,’’ Montgomery said. ‘‘People have to keep them in check, so I think that’s what the players are trying to do. I definitely back that up. I think it needs to be a thing we come together on.’’