Cubs Insider

How Cubs landed at center of key issue in CBA fight

Cubs Insider
Tanks for everything, Javy and Bryzzo

CARLSBAD, Calif. — As Scott Boras finished a 50-minute session with baseball writers at the general managers meetings Wednesday, the final two questions might have summed up the whole thing — if not the heart of the labor conflict that is expected to shut the game down in three weeks.

How many teams do you think are trying to win?

“Currently? Seventeen at the most,” the most powerful agent in the sport said.

How many of the 17 are in the National League Central?

“I think you know the answer to that,” Boras said.

For now, that number looks a lot like two, with a chance to drop to maybe one and a half, if somebody meets the Brewers’ price on late-inning monster Josh Hader and the defending division champs trade the National League’s reliever of the year.

Neither one is the Cubs, who are “rebuilding” — if not tanking — for the second time in a decade after blowing up their All-Star championship core in a jarring 20-hours sequence before the trade deadline.

As baseball executives wrapped up a two-day flurry of activity at the GM meetings, exactly three weeks before baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expires, the Cubs were once again served up as Exhibit A for what ails the game — at the center of one of the biggest issues keeping owners and players far enough apart in labor talks that a lockout on Dec. 2 is considered a foregone conclusion.

Wednesday it was Boras’ turn to take well-deserved aim at tanking and the “race to the bottom” by teams choosing to chase amateur signing-allotment increases and higher draft picks when they’ve decided they don’t have enough talent to make a run at winning it all.

 

The 2012 change in that year’s new CBA that hard-capped spending on bonuses for drafted players and international amateurs created the problem, said Boras — referring to a change Cubs baseball execs bemoaned since it went into effect at the moment Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer took over in Chicago.

That was the moment before Epstein and Hoyer chose a rebuilding path that made the Cubs the first major-market, big-revenue team to intentionally tank full seasons in baseball history.

Now a half-dozen or more teams go all in to shed talent with short-term value — and payroll — in any given year as a rebuilding Plan (say hi, White Sox).

In addition to the Cubs taking a massive step back this winter after ending a streak of six straight winning seasons and blowing up the core in July, division-rival Cincinnati has already shed Gold Glove catcher Tucker Barnhart and one of its best pitchers, Wade Miley, in moves that saved relatively paltry contract-option buyouts. That included waiving Miley just ahead of the decision deadline on his $10 million option rather than pay the $1 million buyout or chance getting stuck with the contract.

“Essentially what we’ve seen happen is in many ways the integrity of the season being eroded due to a rule change that occurred in 2012, and that was that they capped the draft, and that created an incentive for the race to the bottom,” Boras said. “Because now we have half the major-league teams at some time during the season being non-competitive, trading off their players, making the game and the season very different than what it was intended to be — and that was having an incentive to win every game that you play.

“When the commissioner’s office advocated for this, they failed to consider the impact that this would have on fan interest, on the aspect of major-league players in a locker room in spring training expecting to win and compete and then being told their team is now devoid of the cores of their lineup once it is determined by the team that they’re no longer competitive.”

Those last two paragraphs are part of a lengthy opening commentary from Boras before he took questions. And while he conspicuously did not call out the Cubs by name — even when repeatedly asked about the Cubs specifically — exactly one team in 2021 fit that last description.

But it’s not about specific executives from specific teams gaming the rules to their advantage; that’s their jobs, Boras said. It’s about an industry tanking problem that has run rampant since hard caps on amateur spending created extreme incentives for losing as much as possible if you decide you don’t have a chance to win it all.

Byproducts of it include overall salary suppression, including pre-pandemic decreases in the average major-league salary for the first time in decades (despite record industry revenues), and cartoonish disparities between a growing number of inflated 100-win seasons and self-inflicted 100-loss seasons.

 

Talented players in their 30s are increasingly devalued, or simply discarded more quickly, and Boras tied the over-arching results to the Braves’ ability to acquire so many impact players at the deadline that they became suddenly formidable enough in two-plus months to win a World Series by outperforming teams such as the Dodgers and Astros that were far superior for the entirety of the season — including a World Series MVP performance from rent-a-player Jorge Soler, NLCS MVP performance from rent-a-player Eddie Rosario and big October contributions from another pair of deadline acquisitions: Joc Pederson (from the Cubs) and Adam Duvall (Marlins).

“This is the Easter Bunny delivering rotten eggs,” Boras said. “We have seen a non-competitive cancer occur as a result of a bargaining change.

“It’s not good for the game. It’s not how our game should be played. And it’s something that when we look at it is one of the greatest problems in major league baseball today.”

Love him or hate him, Boras couldn’t be more right on this issue.

Before the hard caps that come with steep penalties for more than small-percentage violations, several big-market, successful teams restocked their farm systems with impact prospects by overspending the league’s slot guidelines and plucking hard-to-sign, valuable players with leverage by paying their prices.

Boras worked his end of that system as well as the likes of Epstein and Hoyer did in Boston and San Diego.

Boras almost certainly would benefit with a return to pre-2012 amateur rules. But his own interests don’t make him any less right — or make fixing this problem any less urgent for the good of the game and the fans in places like Chicago who are staring down the process of another rebuild at Wrigley, without so much as fan-favorites Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez or Kris Bryant.

Cubs president Jed Hoyer wouldn’t comment on labor issues or the tanking problem raised again by Boras Wednesday and faced again by Cubs fans a scant five years after that historic championship.

But he has signaled an off-season of free agent moves long on short-term contracts and value moves — despite the existence of only two division rivals trying to win in 2022.

If those moves pay off well enough to produce a division contender by midseason, maybe Hoyer can pull off a Braves-like trade deadline in July.

If not, it would be a roster built to tear down at the deadline, much like this year’s.

“I don’t want to fault any of those teams,” Boras reiterated when asked again about the Cubs.

“You’ve got to sit there and wade through the water you’re swimming in,” he said, “so the reality of it is it’s not about teams’ individual conduct. It’s about what we need to do holistically to remedy the competitiveness of our game and to return it.”

 

Possible solutions include disqualifying the worst team(s) from the top pick(s) and accompanying higher bonus pools, thereby incentivizing attempts to win, say, 75 games compared to 65.

Or just get rid of the hard caps.

Meanwhile, take a good, long look at the poster boys for the issue as the Cubs assemble a roster this winter that may ultimately require an even longer look to find names capable of stirring a fan to reach for their wallet.

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