Skip to main content

The New York Mets introduced new pitcher Max Scherzer at a news conference on Dec. 1, 2021. The work stoppage that threatens the 2022 season has begun, but not before teams such as the Mets inked marquee free agents to expensive contracts for whenever play resumes.The Associated Press

In order to make clear how much they require changes in the way business is done in order to stay viable, Major League Baseball’s owners went on an almighty shopping spree just before Thursday’s lockout.

Nearly US$1.5-billion was promised to free agents in November, a near-record amount in record-setting time. In terms of crying poor, this is a bit like buying a yacht to celebrate your impending bankruptcy.

So many teams splurged, it is hard to pinpoint the worst offender.

Maybe it’s the Texas Rangers forking over half a billion dollars for two shortstops (ex-Toronto rent-a-star Marcus Semien and Corey Seager). One is fine, but two seems a bit luxurious.

Maybe it’s the Chicago Cubs giving former Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman US$71-million for three years. The technical term for what Stroman offers is ‘good’. He’s good at most things, but not great at anything. In their rush to grab something before the shop closed, the Cubs gave him ace money.

Or maybe the winner in this sprint toward profligacy is the Mets. Hedge-fund billionaire Steve Cohen recently purchased majority control of New York’s perennial losers. Cohen is the sort of owner who treats his team like a model train set. He can’t stop collecting shiny boxcars.

Cohen pitched a fit after losing out on former Jays starter Steven Matz (“I’ve never seen such unprofessional behaviour exhibited by a player’s agent”). Full of pique, Cohen wheeled about and gave 37-year-old Max Scherzer US$43-million a year. That makes him the highest-paid player in baseball history.

It’s Cohen’s money. Why should the average fan care if he wants to blow it all in one place? But it goes some way to fatally undermining the argument that owners are hard up. Is this their idea of fiscal prudence?

Scherzer is great, but he’s a starting pitcher. In a best-case scenario, he’ll contribute significantly only during the defensive halves of innings in 20 per cent of the Mets’ games.

Basketball star LeBron James gets less money (US$41-million) to play in nearly all of nearly every one of the Los Angeles Lakers’ games. If you were starting a sports franchise from scratch, who would you rather have?

If you want to buy tickets now to see Scherzer play, you have to guess the right night. You may think you’ve lined up the correct fifth day. Then someone gets hurt, the order gets shuffled and you’re watching (flipping pages) Tylor Megill, whoever that is, get lit up like the Griswold family Christmas.

In showbiz terms, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. But very little about baseball does at the moment.

No sport was hit harder by the pandemic. Other leagues were either finishing up or had just started their layoff when the lockdown orders dropped. Baseball was a couple of weeks from starting. It managed to play the 2020 campaign, but not really.

What’s its response to losing the bulk of a season? Put another season at risk.

After minimal effort on either side to renegotiate the expired collective agreement, 2022 is theoretically off. The league went so far as to clear the front page of house organ of all its baseball news. Baseball’s solution to the latest baseball crisis is disappearing baseball.

Four months – the distance we are from opening day – is a long time to bargain. But you know how this goes. Everyone spends the next three months posturing, only agreeing to get serious when it’s already too late. Even if things go well, they end up going poorly.

The eight previous stoppages have taught baseball an unfortunate lesson – that its customers don’t care all that much about baseball. They’ll watch it if it’s on. But if it’s not, they’ll discover the magical world of knitting instead. Nobody even bothers getting upset about these slapping contests between billionaires and millionaires any more. It’s impossible to like either side.

In the interim between the end of the World Series and the beginning of this nonsense, only a few teams managed to do tidy business without making their claims of poverty look ridiculous.

Prime among them – surprise surprise – was the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Jays’ prelockout signings look good on paper. You always have to offer that caveat, especially as it applies to pitchers. Pitchers are a bit like performance cars – they go like hell, and are prone to blowing up.

Toronto’s headline purchase was San Francisco Giants starter Kevin Gausman (five years, US$110-million). Gausman was great last year, good the season before, and somewhere between average and awful every year before that. Pretty par for the course these days. Re-upping its own man, Jose Berrios (seven years, US$140-million), also looks smart.

But for the first time in forever, it was the things they didn’t do that made the Jays look as though there is a plan in place.

The Jays could have offered Cy Young winner and human timebomb Robbie Ray the money they gave Gausman. They didn’t. Ray is off to Seattle where he may become a hall of famer, but will just as likely become a batting-practice machine.

The Jays could have gone over the top on Texas in order to get Semien back. Statistically speaking, he was their best player last year.

But two numbers should be factored into the Jays’ thinking. Five of their players – five! – received American League MVP votes, while zero of their franchises made the playoffs.

Something about that mix wasn’t right. It isn’t any individual’s fault, but when it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You can blame playing in Buffalo all you want, but Tampa has to play every home game in Tampa and you don’t hear the Rays whining.

The Jays resisted the urge to run through November tossing around money on a team that had already failed. The roster doesn’t require an overhaul, but it needed tweaking. Handing the rotation’s car keys to Gausman and Berrios is that tweak. Now we’ll see if they can drive it.

The ancillary benefit of spending judiciously is that you don’t look quite as foolish as everyone else while you’re complaining about empty pockets. But don’t worry. There’s still plenty of time for everyone to look stupid in April when all this whingeing over money is costing baseball another season.