With full tank, MLB spending limits driving baseball toward next big labor fight
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LAS VEGAS — The legacy of this seventh-year Cubs front office will feature the seismic 2016 World Series championship at the top of the list.
It also will include the ‘‘Tanking for Dummies’’ blueprint for gaming Major League Baseball’s collective-bargaining agreement, especially if the Cubs’ competitive window produces another title.
For better or worse, that puts the Cubs — and the Astros who followed — at the epicenter of what is starting to shape up as MLB’s first labor fight in more than two decades. It has been a duration of labor peace that exceeds the lifetimes of some of the Cubs’ core players, who might help dictate the battle lines.
‘‘We’ve got to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer,’’ powerful agent Scott Boras said, hinting at an issue that is creating
increasing rancor among the well-heeled rank-and-file of the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Boras spoke as the least-active winter meetings in years wrapped up last week in Las Vegas.
Unlike last season, when his stable of top free-agent clients went well into the new year before signing lower-valued deals than anticipated, Boras’ top client this offseason — Bryce Harper — is well down the road in negotiations with at least two teams and should command a record deal.
But even the market for the 26-year-old Harper, the 2015 National League MVP and a six-time All-Star, seems muted by an economic landscape that includes a hard cap on amateur spending, a soft cap on major-league player spending and an incentive for tanking among teams that aren’t poised to compete for revenue-driving playoff runs.
No wonder Harper’s strongest suitors are the Phillies and White Sox, who have cleared enormous payroll flexibility through tanking in recent years and envision their competitive cycles rising.
Meanwhile, two of the top four revenue-producing teams in the game — the Cubs and Dodgers, who have needs that fit Harper’s profile — are sitting out the bidding at this point because of spending concerns related at least in part to the CBA’s luxury-tax threshold ($206 million in 2019).
‘‘There’s a good-faith obligation in every CBA,’’ Boras said. ‘‘And the good faith of it is that you’re going to [attempt to] be competitive. You’re going to be a team that’s always striving to get better. And we have to change that paradigm because it is now an accepted and adopted dynamic to say, ‘I am not going to be competitive for one or two seasons.’ And we have to eradicate that through positive measures.’’
His is just one of a growing number of voices in what has become a baseball version of The Resistance against the system.
Cubs union rep Kris Bryant vows a fight over the punitive caps when the CBA expires after the 2021 season (which coincides with his free agency). Another slow winter of spending only will increase the tension.
‘‘The only way to get what you want here is to fight for it,’’ Bryant said during spring training. ‘‘And I think you’re going to see a lot of that.’’
Boras has advocated a system that would deny top-of-the-draft picks (and the added spending allotment that comes with them) to teams with the worst records. Instead, higher spending-allotment incentives would go to non-playoff qualifiers who achieve, say, 75, 80 and 85 victories.
Boras’ latest suggestion is an ‘‘October madness’’ expanded playoff format that would add two wild-card teams to each league. No. 7 would play No. 6, with the winner playing No. 5. The winner of that then would play No. 4 with a Division Series berth on the line.
‘‘Then you are going to see 85-win teams and 87-win teams get into the playoffs,’’ Boras said. ‘‘And we’re rewarding division winners and the top wild-card winners. Then all of a sudden winning games becomes very important.’’
Boras obviously has a lot at stake personally. But just as obvious is how much baseball has at stake with its competitive integrity when profit-making teams across a $12 billion-a-year industry suppress payrolls and take turns trying to lose.
As Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen said last winter: ‘‘Maybe we have to go on strike.’’