NEW YORK — Even with huge new contracts for Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado, Major League Baseball’s average salary is on track to drop on Opening Day for an unprecedented second straight season, according to projections by The Associated Press.
The 872 players on rosters and injured lists on Monday evening averaged $4.36 million, down from $4.41 million at the start of last season and $4.45 million on Opening Day in 2017, according to AP studies.
Back-to-back drops follow consecutive slow free-agent markets that saw salaries slashed for many veterans — and top pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel remain unsigned as season openers approach.
This year’s exact figure could rise or fall when teams set Opening Day rosters on Thursday. The number will be impacted by how many players go on the injured list and how many lower-priced replacements are put on active rosters. In 2018, the average dropped slightly when late-signing free agents Jake Arrieta of the Philadelphia Phillies and Alex Cobb of the Baltimore Orioles started the season in the minor leagues.
June’s draft looks thin on depth, but a recent Oregon State-Cal series put two potential No. 1 overall picks on display.
Last season’s Opening Day drop was only the second since the end of the 1994-95 strike, according to AP calculations, after a 2.7 percent decrease in 2004. The Major League Baseball Players Association determined its final average as $4,095,686, down $1,436 from 2017, while MLB’s figure was $4,007,987, up from $3,955,920 in 2017. The union includes option buyouts in its average calculation, while MLB does not.
Overall spending on big league payrolls fell last season for the first time since 2010, according to calculations by the commissioner’s office, an $18 million decrease to $4.23 billion attributable to drug and domestic violence suspensions and a player retiring at midseason. The only previous drops since 2002 were by $3 million in 2010 and by $32 million in 2004.
Pitchers are the five highest-paid players, led by Washington’s Max Scherzer at $37.4 million and Arizona’s Zack Greinke at $32.4 million. The Boston Red Sox are set to lead the major leagues in payroll for the second straight year, followed by the Chicago Cubs and New York Yankees. For Scherzer and Greinke, deferred money is discounted to present-day value.
Stagnant-to-down salaries might not change in the next year. The 2019-20 free-agent class lost many of its most attractive players when Arenado, Chris Sale, Justin Verlander and Paul Goldschmidt agreed to new contracts during spring training. That left Gerrit Cole, Madison Bumgarner, Khris Davis, Xander Bogaerts, Didi Gregorius and Anthony Rendon to top the group for now.
The players’ association is angry over the marketplace and is embarking with management on an unprecedented early start to labor negotiations that could lead to major economic changes.
“Free agency is part of what drives baseball’s economic system, and it needs to remain a meaningful option for players going forward,” union head Tony Clark said in a statement to the AP.
Scott Boras, an agent who prefers players to become free agents, advocates that MLB and the union should adopt a “franchise player.”
“Every club needs to allow designation of a luxury tax exception, and that is they get a player that they can sign who is not included in their luxury tax computation,” he said Monday. “That way, we’re assured the teams can have a franchise player and many good players, because every sports league should have Goliaths and every sports league should have Davids.”
Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout was signed for two more years at $66.5 million. Rather than wait, he agreed to a new 12-year, $426.5 million deal last week, a record for total and average at just over $35.5 million but a deal that actually lowered his 2019 figure from $34.3 million to $18.5 million.
As a free agent, the south New Jersey native likely could have averaged far more.
“I know there was a lot of talk about going back East and back to Philly, but I enjoy every minute being here,” he said Sunday outside the Angels’ ballpark in Anaheim. “I was going to be an Angel for life, for sure. … I think spending your whole career with one team, I think it’s pretty cool.”
Staying with one team for his career also was a factor for Arenado, who agreed to an eight-year, $260 million contract with the Colorado Rockies.
“The grass isn’t always greener on the other side,” he said. “I wasn’t afraid of free agency. I didn’t base my decision off that. I based my decision off of me wanting to be here.”
Sale, the left-handed ace who helped Boston win its fourth title in 15 seasons, has been with the Red Sox for two seasons following his trade from the Chicago White Sox. A key for Sale was staying with a team that holds spring training in Fort Myers, Florida, where he lives in the offseason. Already guaranteed $15 million in the final year of his previous contract, he agreed to a new contract for an additional $145 million from 2020 to 2024.
A left-hander who will turn 30 next weekend, Sale was bothered by left shoulder inflammation last season. This locks in likely the biggest contract of his life.
“For me, the best possible deal wasn’t the most money, right? And that is for some people, and I respect it,” he said. “And I actually would tell people to do that: Hey, go to free agency, maximize your opportunity, get everything you can. We have a very small window as athletes in any sport to maximize our opportunity, because we can’t do this for 30 years. But for me, living at my house for two extra months, picking my son up from school — I’ve made it to all of his practices for Little League. He has 14 games; I’ve been able to see six of them.”
Verlander, a 36-year-old right-hander, found similar happiness in Houston after spending 11-plus seasons with Detroit. He was acquired in August 2017 and helped the Astros win their first World Series title. Already signed for $28 million this season, he agreed to a new three-year deal adding $66 million in guaranteed money.
“I can’t see a better situation, so that’s, for me, why this situation was a perfect marriage,” he said.
Verlander claims, “I wasn’t scared of free agency,” but he thinks the market is broken.
“At the top of the food chain, those guys are always going to get their contracts,” he said. “Teams are understanding the situation that they’re in when they have the player in house. There’s a mutual leverage there for both sides to get something done. And I think that’s why you’re seeing a lot of this happen right now.”
Goldschmidt, a first baseman acquired by St. Louis from Arizona in December, had a $14.5 million salary this season. He agreed to a deal with the Cardinals that guarantees an additional $130 million from 2020 to 2024. He emulated the decisions of Mark McGwire, Jim Edmonds and Matt Holliday, who all decided on long-term stays after trades to the Cardinals.
“There’s a lot of great things about this game, but a lot times, families are moving around and guys are going to different cities and different teams more out of necessity than want,” he said, “so to have an opportunity to stay in one place was a high priority.”