Tomase: J.D. Martinez is right -- baseball's economics are screwed up and it's killing the game

John Tomase
February 26, 2019 - 12:18 pm

Here's a simple question: How much does John Henry make in a year?

The simple answer is none of us has any idea. We just know he's a billionaire.

Now ask that question of David Price. Oh, that's easy -- $31 million. Or Mookie Betts, who just scored $20 million in arbitration. Or J.D. Martinez, who signed a deal averaging $22 million annually on this date in 2018. It doesn't even take a particularly diehard level of fandom to know that Mitch Moreland will make $6.5 million as part of a two-year, $13 million contract.

The greatest trick owners ever pulled was convincing fans the players were the greedy ones. Since free agency kicked off in 1976, how many times have we castigated athletes for wanting their share of the pie?

In the context of baseball's pay structure, for instance, David Ortiz was criminally underpaid. Had he retired in 2015 instead of 2016, he would've made less than contemporary Aramis Ramirez. His lifetime earnings of $160 million fall short of players like Todd Helton ($161 million), Alfonso Soriano ($166 million), and Matt Holliday ($173 million), to name three. He never earned more than $16 million in a season despite leading the Red Sox to three World Series titles.

And yet it became an annual rite of spring to crucify Ortiz over his contract demands. We sided with ownership instead of a franchise icon and future Hall of Famer. Why? Because we knew the numbers, and they were beyond our comprehension. How dare these guys demand to be compensated for playing a kids game, many rail, but fewer question how much owners should profit, particularly as franchise valuations climb into the billions.

One year ago today, the Red Sox made the pivotal move of their 2018 offseason when they belatedly agreed to a five-year, $110 million deal with Martinez. Despite blasting 45 homers in 2017, he had languished all winter without so much as a rival competitive offer. The Red Sox never really budged, at least monetarily, because they were effectively bidding against themselves. It was smart business. The primary concession Martinez extracted was a series of opt-outs, starting this fall, that could throw him back into an uncertain market, where perhaps this entire frustrating cycle will play out again.

Martinez isn't happy about it, as he made clear to's Rob Bradford in a revealing interview over the weekend from Fort Myers. Asked if he expected this winter to play out similarly -- superstar Manny Machado just agreed with the Padres, while former MVP Bryce Harper remains unsigned -- Martinez responded, "100 percent."

"(Owners) got away with it last year, why wouldn't they do it again?" he said. "What's going to happen? Nothing. It's embarrassing for baseball, it really is. It's really embarrassing for the game. You have a business. They say, 'The market is down, the market is changing.' The market is higher than it's ever been. People are making more money than ever, and they're trying to suppress it. It's more of a race towards the bottom now than a race towards the top. You can go right now through everyone's lineup and you already know who's going to be in the playoffs. What's the fun in that? We might as well just fast-forward to the end of the season."

Baseball's CBA doesn't expire until 2021, but the sport is headed for a reckoning. Owners have created a system where the game's most valuable commodity -- youth -- is cost-controlled for six seasons, at which point it's not youth anymore. No one wants to spend on veterans, and no one has to spend on youngsters. For a league raking in record profits, that's a recipe for the sport's first work stoppage since 2002, especially as more and more sabermetrically inclined teams look to follow the worst-to-first models of the Astros, Royals, and Cubs -- lose to amass young talent before even considering being competitive. The Rockies took a welcome step in the opposite direction with Tuesday's reported $260 million extension for third baseman Nolan Arenado, but the damgae remains.

"Losing is incentivized now," Martinez told Bradford. "You have 80 percent of the teams trying to lose. We were at a point where we were getting paid well and everything was fair. We saw where the product was going, everything was moving forward. Then we're like, 'OK, we're not going to push the envelope fighting for money. Let's fight for an extra bus.' Again, I was a lot younger than I am now. I wasn't aware of those things. When you get older, you go through arbitration, you start seeing it affect you directly, and you get a lot more involved. This has definitely been eye-opening to everyone. Not just myself, but all of the players. There obviously have to be some changes."

The Red Sox are one of the few teams in baseball that has demonstrated a willingness to spend. They parlayed baseball's highest payroll into the greatest season in franchise history and a 2018 World Series title. Eight players will make at least $12 million this year, and another, Rusney Castillo, will earn nearly that much at Triple-A. They're not the problem.

The problem lies virtually everywhere else, in once-proud markets like Baltimore and Pittsburgh and Chicago where payrolls have dropped to the bottom five in baseball. Even the Marlins won a couple of championships two decades ago, and now they don't even pretend to try.

That's not about player greed. It's about owner greed. And until we figure that out, baseball will have no reason to change.