The CBA negotiations continue to stall despite MLB and the MLBPA meeting every day this week. There have been small movements by both sides, but as Jeff Passan noted on Thursday afternoon it’s glacially slow:
Meetings are done. Progress was minimal. There are four days left for MLB and the MLBPA to get a new labor deal or regular-season games are going to be canceled. They’ve had four days to move and there’s been next to nothing — just incremental. And that’s that.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) February 24, 2022
There are a number of factors slowing the negotiations down. As I wrote last week, often small moves on one issue are accompanied by massive conditions that not only negate the original concession, they make the overall deal worse. The owners and players have a Grand Canyon of differences between them on issues like the CBT and how many players should qualify for Super Two status. I don’t have a lot of faith that they are going to bridge that sizable gap any time soon. But as both sides take to the media to make their cases, there is one particular media talking point I want to explore more, specifically: the idea that this can all be brushed off as squabbles between millionaires and billionaires. It’s everywhere, because it is a historically effective public relations strategy. Today I’ll take a closer look at the Cubs’ 40-man roster to demonstrate that this framing is mostly incorrect, but before I do let’s establish a few things.
Millionaires vs. billionaires is everywhere
MLB and legacy media feed this talking point a lot, and why wouldn’t they? After all, the vast majority of us are not millionaires. They are banking on us rolling our collective eyes at the idea of paying millionaires more money. MLB would rather we hate the lot of them than stand in solidarity with the MLBPA. Let’s look at a few examples. First, from Andrew Stitt at Forbes:
Major League Baseball still isn’t getting it: The optics on the players lockout look absolutely atrocious.
Yes, it always looks bad when billionaire owners and millionaire athletes squabble over a few more zeroes. But the current MLB work stoppage has the worst optics of any previous one — in any sport — ever.
Is MLB even looking outside its gold-plated bubble? Do the owners and players see what’s happening on this planet? A pandemic that’s still killing more than 2,000 U.S. citizens a day. Unprecedented crime in most major cities. Crashing financial markets. And a war erupting in Europe that’s scaring the holy bejesus out of the West.
But then there’s MLB, both owners and players alike, with all their infuriating cluelessness.
Or what about these gems from the AP:
Mets’ Max Scherzer arrives in Porsche, joins fellow pitcher Gerrit Cole and other players as union and MLB meet for a third straight day in an attempt to salvage opening day on March 31 amid lockout.https://t.co/9kqPHgAFMK
— AP Sports (@AP_Sports) February 23, 2022
Credit where it is due, those Scherzer and Cole stats came from the New York Post originally. The implication is clear: these players make more money to play a single game than most Americans make in multiple years. The players should just take their large sums of money and get in line. The problem is that reality is a lot more complicated than that, as I’ll show.
To be clear, I’m not disputing the amount of money Cole and Scherzer make each day, nor am I disputing that it’s more than most of us make in multiple years. I am merely here to point out that what they make daily is peanuts compared to what the owners make. Those headlines are just a lot more difficult to write about the owners, because while player salaries are public information, team books are not.
I’ve written previously about the fact that human beings are really bad at understanding the difference in scale between a million and a billion, so let’s use this tweet to help us out:
ESPN framing the MLB lockout as “billionaires vs millionaires” is a stupid anti-labor talking point that should always be followed by mentioning if you made a dollar a second, every second, it would take you 11.6 days to become a millionaire and 31.6 years to become a billionaire
— Adam H. Johnson (@adamjohnsonNYC) February 24, 2022
To return to Scherzer’s Porsche for a second, yes, that is a nice car. It costs a lot of money, but that’s pocket change for MLB’s owners. For example:
Max Scherzer driving a Porsche to the meetings today is not headline-worthy unless you’re also going to just randomly include that that Steve Cohen paid $155 million for a Picasso painting.
— Levi Weaver, idk (@ThreeTwoEephus) February 23, 2022
There are only a handful of Coles and Scherzers
But this leads us to the much more important point: there are only a small handful of guys who will ever attain the type of wealth Max Scherzer or Gerrit Cole has from baseball.
Daniel Epstein at Beyond the Box Score did an admirable job chasing down the league-wide math behind this in 2019. You should read the whole piece, but let’s focus for a second on his analysis of how many millionaires there were on 40-man rosters in 2019:
In the minors, we have 358 MLBPA members on 40-man rosters. There’s not a lot of information available on what they earn, but as per this Boston.com article from March, 2018, they receive $44,500 for their first 40-man roster contract.
In summation, 398 of the 1,267 MLBPA members earn $1 million dollars or more this season, or 31.4 percent.
That’s right, less than a third of the players represented by the MLBPA were so-called millionaires in 2019. For those of you that are the visual type. he has this chart:
The media spends a lot of time crunching the numbers and commenting on the sports cars of the guys at the top of this graph, but they spend substantially less on the vast majority of players at the lower end of the curve.
Now, there are limitations to this analysis. Epstein admits that with all of the transactions in a season it’s borderline impossible to keep track of the players earning the league minimum vs. the players who bounce back and forth between the minor leagues over the course of an entire season. Additionally, some of the details of that compensation are harder to track down. For example, players on the 40-man roster for the first time make $46,000 a year. That’s a sizable bump from the Triple-A salary of $14,700, but it’s less than 10 percent of the league minimum of $570,500. Once players are on the 40-man for a second year that base salary rises to $93,000. There are also potentially pro-rated benefits for days a player is on the 26-man roster.
With all of that as background, this is a Cubs blog, so today I wanted to take a closer look at the 2021 roster to see how this narrative plays out in one season with one team.
How many millionaires are there really?
For the purposes of this post I looked at the Cubs 40-man roster. Those are the players represented by the MLBPA who have a seat at the negotiating table, I then spent some time on Spotrac to find salary information for 2021. This includes players who played in MLB last year, players who were on the 60-day IL, salaries that were acquired or released over the course of the season. The limitation to this method is that it is that Spotrac is mostly concerned with the overall team bottom line for purposes of determining how close a team might be to the CBT. However, just because the Cubs only paid Nick Madrigal $204,100, that isn’t all he made. The White Sox paid the remainder of his salary, which tallied to the league minimum. I tried to ferret out all of these exceptions, but it is possible I missed one or two roster moves.
For purposes of…