The meaning of Randy Wolf (Part 2)

Today on Boston's WEEI, our own Buster Olney said this:

    Olney said general managers around the league are looking for value with a Moneyball-type approach, and it’s having a big affect on the free agent market. “I think quite literally you’ve got a lot more teams making a lot smarter decisions, and in a lot of cases they’re working from the same equations and using the same numbers to make a value judgment,” he said.

Coming off a season in which he posted a 3.23 ERA and pitched 214 innings, Randy Wolf just got a three-year contract for $30 million.

Coming off a season in which he posted a 4.12 ERA and pitched 190 innings, Jeff Suppan, three years ago, got a four-year contract for $42 million.

A year ago, Kyle Farnsworth got a two-year, $9.25 million contract from the Royals. Today, LaTroy Hawkins got a two-year, $7.5 million contract from the Brewers.

These are just a few deals, obviously. But with the exception of the big superstars like CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira, the dollars have been going down. And while it's easy to blame this on the economy, by all accounts MLB's revenues were actually up this year, even with the drop in attendance (probably thanks to higher ticket prices and Major League Baseball Advanced Media).

One year ago, Liz Mullen wrote this in SportsBusiness Journal:

    Major League Baseball players received about 52 percent of leaguewide revenue last season, said MLB’s Rob Manfred, which would appear to leave baseball players with the lowest percentage of revenue among the Big Four team sports.

    Under their respective collective-bargaining agreements, NHL players received 56.7 percent last season, NBA players about 57 percent and NFL players about 59 percent.

    It is impossible to make an apples-to-apples comparison among the sports. Manfred, MLB executive vice president in charge of labor, and other industry experts have said one reason it is not fair to compare the percentage of MLB revenue paid to players to other leagues is that MLB clubs collectively spend hundreds of millions of dollars on player development for players in the minor leagues.

    Still, MLB players in the early part of this decade received a much higher percentage of league revenue, in the high 50s to low 60s. In recent history, the number peaked in 2003 at 63 percent.

    In 2002, MLB and the MLB Players Association agreed on a new collective-bargaining agreement that included a luxury tax provision, which Manfred has said affected the number. Manfred has told SportsBusiness Journal that the percentage of leaguewide revenue paid to players in the 2004 though 2007 MLB seasons ranged from 51 percent to 55 percent, although he would not say what percentage players received in each year.

63 percent.

Gosh, the players (and their agents!) were living large in 2003. But that number fell precipitously with the new CBA, and seems to have settled into the low 50s ... or has it? We don't have the 2009 data yet, but what if it falls below 50 percent? Isn't that a psychological barrier of sorts? If the players realize they're not even getting half what the owners are raking in? Sure, they're not apples-to-apples with the other sports, but between (perhaps) dropping below 50 percent and the general decline since 2003, doesn't someone on the players' side have to be thinking about what's gone so terribly wrong?

For as long as owners have been talking about a salary cap, it's been a complete non-starter. The players' union wouldn't allow that conversation to even begin. They said it was because of a principle.

It wasn't. Oh, there might have been some principles involved, back in the 1960s when the players had the moral high ground. But in the 1970s, when free agency came into the game, the union -- read: Marvin Miller -- had one thing in mind: maximizing the players' income. That's not a principle. That's a goal. And the union accomplished that goal brilliantly for at least 25 years. Why would the players consider a salary cap, when they'd done so well for so long without one?

Except now they don't seem to be doing as well. The owners are looking for value, and there's little relative value in free agents in their 30s or mediocre arbitration-eligible players in their 20s. There's more value in younger players, who -- and this is of course the beautiful thing for the owners -- make very little money compared to their older peers.

One dirty little secret about the Major League Baseball Players Association: For a long time, the union has had little interest in representing all the players. Rather, the union has been run mostly for the benefit of the veterans, who for obvious reasons tend to be more involved. That's not going to change. Not much, anyway. But dropping under 50 percent might plant a seed in the union's collective mind -- actually, I suspect it's already been planted -- that maybe there's another way.

Would the owners agree to sending a set percentage of revenue to the players? Maybe. If the players would give up something. For example, their knee-jerk resistance to anything resembling a salary cap. I'm not saying all this will happen, or that it would be easy. But the current collective bargaining agreement doesn't expire until after the 2012 season. A lot can happen in three years. And if one of the things that happens is the players' share of the pie keeps shrinking, you might be surprised by how quickly some long-held "principles" get turned upside down.