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Easy Money: A Billion Dollars Is Just Pocket Change For MLB Owners

You get the sense sometimes Major League Baseball is just aching for a change. There has been so much talk about the adoption of new rules you wonder how the game has managed to survive since the 19th century.

And because of this, and because of the way free agency had been handled over the last two winters, we might have convinced ourselves the garish contracts now slept with the carp at the bottom of the luxury tax pond.

Of course, we were wrong. Over the last week, the San Diego Padres, Colorado Rockies, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies went old school by investing new money amounting to just over one billion on just five players.

The Padres gave Manny Machado $300 million. The Rockies extended Nolan Arenado’s deal with $260 million. The Cardinals offered Miles Mikolas $68 million. The Yankees gave Aaron Hicks $70 million. And then on Thursday, there was the colossus – Bryce Harper’s 13-year, $330 mega-million monster with the Phillies.

Mike Trout

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Even for a sport known for tossing money around like empty peanut shells, this unprecedented dispersal of capital proves beyond doubt that if a team wants a player badly enough, they will find the money to get him.

If nothing else, this also serves to counter the basic and empty-headed premise of the player’s unions argument with ownership, that too many teams seem uninterested in improving themselves.

Perhaps the truth can be told now: Teams aren’t interested in throwing money at players they deem too old or undeserving of it. Buyer beware is now the main bullet point on their financial sheet. Good for them.

“It’s incredibly inspiring and motivating as players,’’ said former Milwaukee Brewers MVP Ryan Braun told USA Today. “When you know your organization and your ownership group is going to do everything in their power to put you in an on-field position to be successful.

And you know what, the owners may still be the plate. The Mets are negotiating a contract extension for Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom. And after this season, power-hitting first baseman Paul Goldschmidt will hit free agency, if he and the Cardinals decide one year together is enough. So will Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, a nice cornerstone building block.

“We always are aware looking several years out what the free-agent classes are going to be,” Phillies general manager Matt Klentak said last season. “Some players don’t get there because they sign extensions. Some players get hurt or become less effective. But we’re generally aware of who’s coming out when. We also have been very careful about managing our future payroll obligations to put ourselves in a position to embrace opportunities.”

If you thought the free agent Class of 2019 was impressive, just wait until after the 2020 season is over. That’s when Mike Trout, AL MVP Mookie Betts, George Springer, J.T. Realmuto and deGrom will become free agents.

In two years, you’d expect – at least the players would – that Harper’s money would serve as the starting point for negotiations aimed at landing one of those guys. They are some franchise-changing talents there. It’s conceivable Trout, who will be just 29, and Springer, who will be 31 – or both – could become the game’s first $400 million player.

Nolan Arenado

(Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

Of course, the signings of Arenado, Mikolas and Hicks prove it’s entirely possible Trout, Betts, Realmuto, Springer or deGrom will not even reach free agency. The Rockies, Cardinals and Yankees worked proactively, as the Mets are doing now with deGrom, to sign players to extensions prior to their free-agent seasons. That doesn’t mean they won’t all get their money, but it means there would be no bidding for their services.

“This isn’t the last year that Major League Baseball is ever going to be played,” Phillies president Andy MacPhail said “You’re not going to throw every resource you have at this year because there’s the following year as well. There’s always going to be that push for, ‘Sign this guy, sign that guy.”

MLB’s total revenue is approaching $11 billion, a figure it might hit this season. And even after the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is ironed out prior to the 2021 season, ownership is still going to be able to spend big on big players, even if it has to compromise on years of service for free agency and arbitration eligibility.

“That’s crazy money,’’ said Brewers centerfielder Lorenzo Cain, who signed a five-year, $80 million contract last winter, the largest free-agent deal in Brewers’ history. “I think it’s good for baseball. It raises the bar for other free agents still to come. I’m definitely happy to see it.’’