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The CBA negotiations are really a battle of billionaires vs. thousandaires — with just a handful of millionaires

Let’s take a closer look at the reality of player compensation

Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel celebrate an August win against the White Sox
Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

The CBA negotiations continue to stall despite MLB and the MLBPA meeting every day this week. There have been small movements by both sides, but as Jeff Passan noted on Thursday afternoon it’s glacially slow:

There are a number of factors slowing the negotiations down. As I wrote last week, often small moves on one issue are accompanied by massive conditions that not only negate the original concession, they make the overall deal worse. The owners and players have a Grand Canyon of differences between them on issues like the CBT and how many players should qualify for Super Two status. I don’t have a lot of faith that they are going to bridge that sizable gap any time soon. But as both sides take to the media to make their cases, there is one particular media talking point I want to explore more, specifically: the idea that this can all be brushed off as squabbles between millionaires and billionaires. It’s everywhere, because it is a historically effective public relations strategy. Today I’ll take a closer look at the Cubs’ 40-man roster to demonstrate that this framing is mostly incorrect, but before I do let’s establish a few things.

Millionaires vs. billionaires is everywhere

MLB and legacy media feed this talking point a lot, and why wouldn’t they? After all, the vast majority of us are not millionaires. They are banking on us rolling our collective eyes at the idea of paying millionaires more money. MLB would rather we hate the lot of them than stand in solidarity with the MLBPA. Let’s look at a few examples. First, from Andrew Stitt at Forbes:

Major League Baseball still isn’t getting it: The optics on the players lockout look absolutely atrocious.

Yes, it always looks bad when billionaire owners and millionaire athletes squabble over a few more zeroes. But the current MLB work stoppage has the worst optics of any previous one — in any sport — ever.

Is MLB even looking outside its gold-plated bubble? Do the owners and players see what’s happening on this planet? A pandemic that’s still killing more than 2,000 U.S. citizens a day. Unprecedented crime in most major cities. Crashing financial markets. And a war erupting in Europe that’s scaring the holy bejesus out of the West.

But then there’s MLB, both owners and players alike, with all their infuriating cluelessness.

Or what about these gems from the AP:

Credit where it is due, those Scherzer and Cole stats came from the New York Post originally. The implication is clear: these players make more money to play a single game than most Americans make in multiple years. The players should just take their large sums of money and get in line. The problem is that reality is a lot more complicated than that, as I’ll show.

Scale matters

To be clear, I’m not disputing the amount of money Cole and Scherzer make each day, nor am I disputing that it’s more than most of us make in multiple years. I am merely here to point out that what they make daily is peanuts compared to what the owners make. Those headlines are just a lot more difficult to write about the owners, because while player salaries are public information, team books are not.

I’ve written previously about the fact that human beings are really bad at understanding the difference in scale between a million and a billion, so let’s use this tweet to help us out:

To return to Scherzer’s Porsche for a second, yes, that is a nice car. It costs a lot of money, but that’s pocket change for MLB’s owners. For example:

There are only a handful of Coles and Scherzers

But this leads us to the much more important point: there are only a small handful of guys who will ever attain the type of wealth Max Scherzer or Gerrit Cole has from baseball.

Daniel Epstein at Beyond the Box Score did an admirable job chasing down the league-wide math behind this in 2019. You should read the whole piece, but let’s focus for a second on his analysis of how many millionaires there were on 40-man rosters in 2019:

In the minors, we have 358 MLBPA members on 40-man rosters. There’s not a lot of information available on what they earn, but as per this article from March, 2018, they receive $44,500 for their first 40-man roster contract.

In summation, 398 of the 1,267 MLBPA members earn $1 million dollars or more this season, or 31.4 percent.

That’s right, less than a third of the players represented by the MLBPA were so-called millionaires in 2019. For those of you that are the visual type. he has this chart:

2019 MLBPA represented players salary distribution
Daniel Epstein - Beyond the Boxscore

The media spends a lot of time crunching the numbers and commenting on the sports cars of the guys at the top of this graph, but they spend substantially less on the vast majority of players at the lower end of the curve.

Now, there are limitations to this analysis. Epstein admits that with all of the transactions in a season it’s borderline impossible to keep track of the players earning the league minimum vs. the players who bounce back and forth between the minor leagues over the course of an entire season. Additionally, some of the details of that compensation are harder to track down. For example, players on the 40-man roster for the first time make $46,000 a year. That’s a sizable bump from the Triple-A salary of $14,700, but it’s less than 10 percent of the league minimum of $570,500. Once players are on the 40-man for a second year that base salary rises to $93,000. There are also potentially pro-rated benefits for days a player is on the 26-man roster.

With all of that as background, this is a Cubs blog, so today I wanted to take a closer look at the 2021 roster to see how this narrative plays out in one season with one team.

How many millionaires are there really?

For the purposes of this post I looked at the Cubs 40-man roster. Those are the players represented by the MLBPA who have a seat at the negotiating table, I then spent some time on Spotrac to find salary information for 2021. This includes players who played in MLB last year, players who were on the 60-day IL, salaries that were acquired or released over the course of the season. The limitation to this method is that it is that Spotrac is mostly concerned with the overall team bottom line for purposes of determining how close a team might be to the CBT. However, just because the Cubs only paid Nick Madrigal $204,100, that isn’t all he made. The White Sox paid the remainder of his salary, which tallied to the league minimum. I tried to ferret out all of these exceptions, but it is possible I missed one or two roster moves.

For purposes of readability I bucketed players in the following categories. Players who make less than the league minimum, players who make the league minimum but under $1 million, players who make $1 — $5 million, players who make $5 — 10 million, and players who make over $10 million. Obviously the latter categories are much larger ranges than the former, but since I’m trying to capture how many players could accurately be characterized as millionaires rather than precise wealth distribution on teams, I thought these categories were sufficient. Below you can see how salaries for the 2021 Cubs broke down by each category:

2021 Chicago Cubs salaries by pay category
Spotrac data compiled by Sara Sanchez

Fully 73 percent of the players who logged service time for the Chicago Cubs in 2021 made less than $1 million during the season. Now, I can hear some of you now, but they might play another year, or maybe they had a signing bonus. Sure, I get that. It is possible that at some point in time some of these players will compile more than $1 million from their MLB playing career. However, a lot of these are journeymen who didn’t get large bonuses and may not see multiple years in the big leagues. It is possible they’ve spent five to seven years in the minor leagues making sub-minimum wage salaries and when you make $650,000 over eight years it looks a lot more like regular working person wages than millions of dollars.

After the Cubs traded the vast majority of their marquee players at the trade deadline in 2021 the team looked a lot different. But, they had some surprising players step up with more playing time. Rafael Ortega slashed .291/.360/.463 across 330 plate appearances. Frank Schwindel hit .342/.389/.613 with a wRC+ of 163 — which led all Cubs, including those traded at the deadline. Patrick Wisdom slugged 28 home runs, eclipsing Kris Bryant’s Cubs rookie home run record of 26 set in 2015 — a feat that took him a mere 375 plate appearances, or 58 percent of the 650 plate appearances it took Bryant to set his rookie mark. Schwindel and Wisdom both garnered NL Rookie of the Year votes for their accomplishments.

None of those players is making a million dollars a year. They are all making the league minimum in their age 29 or 30 season after nine, 10, or 12 years in in the minor leagues. There are a lot more Rafael Ortegas than there are Jason Heywards on every 40-man roster across the league, and writers should stop characterizing this as a fight between millionaires and billionaires. It’s really a fight between billionaires and thousandaires, with a handful of prominent millionaires thrown in.