How did I miss this:

Back on June 15, 1976, as the first wave of MLB serfs-in-spikes was about to hit the open market under the original rules of free agency, a commissioner’s decision cited as “in the best interests of baseball” was made by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn. Commissioner Bud Selig should have repeated that veto power with the Yankees and A.J. Burnett.

Yep. This would be the opening paragraph of Richard Griffin’s column in the Sunday edition of the Toronto Star, calling on Bud Selig to veto last week’s trade between the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates because . . . because . . . because . . .

I’m not really sure why.

I think it has something to do with this:

With A.J. coming off an 18-win, 231 strikeout season, the Yanks outbid all comers. They offered an outrageous five years and $88.5 million for a guy who was barely .500 and has always required the presence of better pitchers on his own staff to be most effective.

The commissioner’s office should consider how that bad Burnett contract impacted other similar free agents in the winter of 2008-09 and the next off-season and how it had a negative trickle down effect that hurt small market teams like Pittsburgh.

That would actually be five years and $82.5 million, and the Yankees were far from being the only team that offered Burnett a five year deal, but that’s really neither here nor there for what Brien Jackson of It’s About The Money Stupid, refers to a “precious example of mindless Yankee hating.”

The crux of Griffin’s argument is that New York can do whatever it wants because of its vasts amounts of money, and the Burnett trade is the perfect example of the disparity in baseball caused by finances.

I would suggest that the Burnett trade is a far better example of MLB’s luxury tax system at work. The Yankees can easily afford to have both Burnett and Raul Ibanez on their roster this coming season, and they’d likely be a slightly better team for it. However, the organization wants to keep their payroll from being outrageously taxed, so in order to do that, they moved Burnett and a portion of his salary in order to finance the Ibanez acquisition and reduce their payroll.

A far better case for Griffin’s thesis would’ve occurred if the Yankees had merely held on to Burnett and use him as a swingman out of the bullpen while continuing to pay the entirety of his salary, or if New York had put even more money in the deal to sweeten the pot in return for higher ceiling prospects.

As it stands, there’s absolutely nothing shady about the Yankees trading Burnett. Whereas, Jackson reminds us that there’s a whole lot of shady business involved in the commissioner of baseball stepping in to suppress free agent salaries.

It would be totally illegal. Not just illegal in an “against the rules of baseball sense,” but illegal in a “violates federal law and would result in Major League Baseball paying millions of dollars in damages” illegal.

Comments (19)

  1. I just love than “Griffin” picture. Makes me laugh every time I see it.

  2. Yeah, I can’t see how what Griff is suggesting wouldn’t violate the CBA. We already have one pro league that’s an absolute sham in this regard (guess which?), and one is enough.

    However, I could have gotten behind implicit collusion between MLB clubs in this case to force the Yanks to either keep Burnett on the roster or release him and absorb more of his remaining salary. I think the crux of Griffin’s argument wasn’t about the absolute amount of money that the Yankees have, but more that they have been allowed to get away from yet another bad contract. The effectiveness of the luxury tax as a means of encouraging parity depends partly on the amount of relief other clubs give to the big spenders.

    Then again, perhaps the Pirates don’t care about that since they’re in another league/division and unlikely to sniff the playoffs this year. That’s their prerogative too, I suppose.

    • But no one forced the Pirates to take Burnett and the amount of salary they did. As you said, it’s their prerogative…

      • What I’m saying is that it might be in the best interest of all clubs for no one to acquire guys like Burnett via trade or off waivers. It would force the big spending clubs to pay out the vast majority of the guaranteed contract and either limit their spending or force them to pay the luxury tax. The Pirates are well within their rights to make that deal, and it was probably a fair trade. However, no AL East club (maybe no AL club period) would have done it, because it gave the Yankees salary relief and allowed them to sign Ibanez and avoid the luxury tax. This type of implicit collusion is probably unethical, but if the MLBPA did lodge a complaint, it would be next to impossible to prove.

        • Except when they did prove it, in 1986/87. Collusion! It’s bad.

          • I don’t think this situation is comparable to ’86-’89. With the luxury tax, I am willing to bet that while average salaries won’t decline on the whole, salaries for players in the middle (not making the league minimum but not Type A free agents) will decline. I think that this was a concession in the CBA in exchange for a higher league minimum and the change in arbitration eligibility by service time. Further, what I’m suggesting is not conspiring against free agents. Teams can make whatever deal they want, so long as they are prepared to pay the full amount of guaranteed money and either keep the player on the 40-man, or release him at which point he becomes a free agent and controls his own fate.

            There are already teams who avoid long-term contracts, and this is about forcing teams who sign long-term deals to honour them on the back end. You could argue that this would deter teams from signing long-term deals, but I would argue that as long as there’s a pronounced wealth disparity between clubs, the big spenders will be able to offer longer terms. It might mean front loading contracts.

            There are more recent examples of collusion (the Bonds case, for example) that were not pursued by the PA for whatever reason.

          • @BillCosby – your point about it being difficult to prove applies specifically to the Bonds case and not to collusion in the 80s. Simply put, it is virtually impossible to prove in an individual case but proving a larger pattern is much easier.

          • @someanalyst- Maybe you’re right. The point I was trying to make was that there’s probably a difference between clubs colluding to keep free agent salaries down (what happened in the late ’80s) and actively choosing not to take on certain players/contracts. The argument can be made that no one signed Bonds because of the combination of diminishing returns and the fact that he was a PR nightmare at that point, and not that clubs colluded to blackball him. Similarly, I think it would be hard to prove the reasoning behind teams refusing to trade for or claim off waivers a player still under contract, like Burnett.

            Maybe this practice would lead to a larger pattern in the way long-term contracts are handed out, and in that case the MLBPA would have a legitimate grievance. I just don’t think that it’s a given that it would do so.

  3. I agree. The Yankees went to the Pirates for salary relief because they’re trying to get their payroll below the luxury tax cap. There are a lot of things to say about the Yankees and the unfair financial situation in MLB, but this certainly isn’t an example of it.

  4. He seems to be saying that Selig should’ve voided the contract more than anything. Okay, he’s not saying that, but his point is the contract was bad for baseball and how dare the Yankees pay 20 million to save 13 million on their terrible mistake contract that upped the cost of pitchers across the board. Now I prefer those rules where the max cash outlay in trades is remarkably low (NBA is like 3m I think) ’cause these pure dump moves have to be far more creative than take my player and I pay x% of his contract. I prefer it that way, but I fully admit this way makes way more sense.

    BTW, does the 20m they pay to PIT stay in the Yankees luxury tax calculations? Really, I just don’t like when you can trade 10 million in salary to another team because it would cost you 15 million. You see that a bit in the NBA with luxury tax teams and the recent Scutaro dump was 100% about luxury tax implications and how his salaries had been calculated oddly due to option years on his contract (did I learn that here?)

    It looks like we may be finally entering the era of the tax level trade in baseball, which goes to show it may finally have reached a level that actually deters some behaviour. I’m looking forward to the weird luxury tax related move the Angels make in two years that gets Wells out of town, saving them like 38 million instead of 21 million, or whatever it was.

    • I missed your question before asking mine below – Matt tells me that the $20m is completely independent of the luxury tax. So, for tax purposes, the team payroll is the total sum of the players’ association’s valuations of the contracts they are paying (they value different kinds of options differently).

  5. Funny, Griffin whines about the Yankees finances making them special, yet wants them to be treated differently than the rest. Useless writer. And that’s putting it kindly. Has he “written” his annual “Yankees are finished” column yet?

  6. Does anybody know if the money the Yankees pay on the Burnett deal while he plays for Pittsburgh count against NYY’s luxury tax calculation?

    If not, and if the new CBA really does lead to even the Yanks and BoSox respecting the luxury tax line, then these subsidized deals will become their bread & butter… Same for deals where the team/player options mess with the luxury tax number as was the case with Scutaro.

    • As I best understand it, the Yankees don’t pay for him while he plays for Pittsburgh, from a legal perspective. He is not on their payroll and would not count on their total #. They send Burnett to Pittsburgh with a cheque for $20 million to cover that portion of the contract, so the Pirates have Burnett’s full contract value on their books, just money from the Yanks to pay it.

  7. And did Griffin have the same argument when his beloved Jays dumped Rios for nothing?

  8. Does the $20 million count as part of the Yankees luxury tax number (say $10 mil/season)? If not then its absolute bullshit, if so then I’m okay with it. They count $10 mil for no return.

    As I type this I see Matt typed an answer above. Can anyone confirm this? And again if it is true I call bullshit.

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