Kenta Maeda's Contract Is Bad News for Baseball Players

The Dodgers just signed Japanese ace Kenta Maeda to a super-cheap contract that could become less so with incentive clauses. It's a great deal for the Dodgers, and perhaps the future of MLB free agency.
January 8, 2016, 3:25pm
Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

We have seen what baseball would like the future of free-agent pitching contracts to be and, shockingly, it does not look especially good for pitchers.

On Thursday, the Los Angeles Dodgers formally announced their eight-year deal with Japanese pitcher Kenta Maeda. To call the contract "team-friendly" borders on criminal understatement. Maeda will earn a base salary of just over $3 million a year through the 2023 season, for a total guaranteed amount of $25 million through his age 35 season. One way or another, this will almost certainly be the last big professional contract Maeda signs in his career, and in a market where guys like J.A. Happ are earning well more than that on three-year deals, that's a remarkably low figure over a remarkably long time. Or, at least, it's a remarkably low base figure.

The life of the Maeda deal is in the escalators: in addition to his $3 million base salary, Maeda will have the opportunity to earn $10 million more every year through playing time incentives. On the surface, this is a good deal for Maeda: the current CBA dictates that bonuses can only be earned through playing time or days on the roster, not through performance, so all Maeda has to do to get his money is stick around on the active roster instead of the disabled list.

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That's where the real victory for the team is here: the Dodgers' actuaries got an athlete to bet on himself. It's a bet they're pretty sure he won't end up winning, just by the numbers game, and it offloads a significant amount of risk from the employer onto the employee. You may recognize this tactic from the NFL following their ownership's overwhelming victory in the last round of negotiations with the players' association in that sport. You may also recognize it from the rest of the entire economy over the past two decades.

There are two specific reasons why this contract happened to this pitcher, at this time. First, the Dodgers had Maeda over a barrel. While a certain amount of protectionism from other professional leagues around the world remains not only understandable but necessary, lest the big leagues siphon away all their young talent in their insatiable appetite for prospects, the particulars of the posting system between NPB and MLB continue to be exceptionally unfair to players. The Dodgers were one of the few, perhaps the only, team willing to pay the steep $20 million posting fee that would come with signing Maeda; in the absence of competition, his options were to accept a contract within parameters the Dodgers found comfortable, or not to pitch in Major League Baseball. A system where the buy-in was not so high—where the posting fee was a percentage of the overall contract, perhaps—would be far more equitable for players like Maeda, and give the player more leverage in negotiations. For those reasons, it is also unlikely to come to pass anytime soon.

The second reason has to do with Maeda's health. There was already substantial worry on that front, enough to keep teams away from paying the $20 million fee required to negotiate with him in the first place. At the press event introducing Maeda as a Dodger on Thursday, the pitcher acknowledged there were issues with his physical. Given that the Dodgers already held all the power in the negotiations, it is understandable that they then made sure the contract protected them in case Maeda's elbow or shoulder gave way immediately.

When you're not sure that the free market is necessarily doing right by you. Photo by Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

This is not just about this pitcher and this contract, however. Kenta Maeda's deal is a prototype, a test balloon by a front office whose leadership has long been at the forefront of the movement to drive down player wages as part of an ideological push for optimization. The contract is a reaction to the state of the free agent market for pitching, which is as inefficient or "overpriced" as it is because the act of pitching is so inherently unnatural and violent to the human body that very few pitchers make it to the majors, let alone free agency, with their arms and shoulders intact. And it is something that front offices all over the league would very much like to see become popular.

Fans will love it, naturally. Players getting paid for only the games they play and no more? The Protestant Work Ethic crowd is going to eat that shit up. People who are paid to talk about this stuff—and many people who aren't—will see a deal that just makes sense in the way that so many other capitulations to management and ownership just make sense, provided those capitulations are being made by other people. This only makes sense if you see the money earned by the Dodgers as the sole property of the team's owners, who then deign to ration it out, rationally, to the players, the front office people, the contractors that hire people at minimum wage to work concessions, and so on.

So if Maeda gets hurt, then the money that would have gone to him is simply returning to its natural state in the pockets of Guggenheim Baseball Management, and everything is just and good in the world. The Dodgers now have even more money with which to sign players. And hey—what if everyone had a contract like this? Think of all the blogposts we could write about who they might sign then!

The MLBPA should oppose this in no uncertain terms, most sensibly with provisions in the new CBA establishing that at least some percentage of a contract's total value must be guaranteed to the player, with X being any number from 50 to (preferably) 80 percent. It's hard to know if the union will do that. The MLBPA already has its head in the dirt when it comes to the growing revenue gap between owners and players, and seems downright unwilling to do anything that might be construed as disrupting the game's labor peace. Front offices, on the other hand, will feel free to disrupt away. If the Maeda contract succeeds as much as the Dodgers hope it will, we'll see more like it over the coming years. Only one party is guaranteed to win this sort of bet-on-yourself contract, and that's the sort of odds baseball's front offices like most.