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Baseball’s cannibalization of its youth is a black mark for the sport

Major League Baseball’s rampant labor exploitation of its under-30 player body is hurting the game.

Kyler Murray Signs Contract Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

After three years of college baseball and nearly another three in the minors, Aaron Judge burst onto the major league scene, immediately establishing himself as one of the game’s brightest stars at age 25. Four years later, he’s made just over $5 million (not including his $1.8 million signing bonus), and won’t hit the open market for another two seasons. By then, he’ll be 30-years-old and years removed from his peak potential market value. Even if he’s able to finally secure the generational wealth one could have easily predicted he’d earn since his full-time call-up when he finally enters free agency, it will have been at the cost of some time and money he might have earned earlier in his career.

Despite the seemingly marginal deficit in the mega-millions Judge will earn, assuming he avoids a major injury in the next 24 months, so many other young stars have missed the opportunity to accrue the value the market would yield them, if only given the chance. As athletes, even the best ones, age out of their careers much, much earlier than other professionals do, ballplayers want to make more money earlier than they might if they were able to play into their sixties, lest they start wholly new careers as they enter middle-age.

Only three of the 25 highest-paying contracts in the history of American sports have come from outside of baseball. When baseball players hit the jackpot, they hit it bigger than basically any other kind of athlete. However, it can take almost a decade for that to happen, if it ever even does. Of the game’s 100 highest-paid players, effectively every player making more than $10 million per year, only 23 of them have yet to enter their thirties. 94 out of those hundred are at least 28-years-old, with the youngest player being the lone 25-year-old, Cody Bellinger.

Bellinger, the son of a former (Yankee) big leaguer, Clay, put the rest of his life on hold as early as middle school in order to chase his major league dreams. Though I’m sure Cody harbors no regrets having already won an MVP and a World Series before his 26th birthday, the sacrifices of his youth may have been exposed through a lack of a cultural education:

Though it’s no crime to not know who Jerry Seinfeld is, it rather implies a singularly-focused American childhood devoid of late-night Seinfeld reruns and/or Bee Movie matinees. In Cody’s case, that early sacrifice paid off, as he was drafted in the fourth round out of high school, then spent four years in the minors before being called up by the Dodgers. Now in his second year playing under an independently arbitrated salary of $13 million, he’ll likely get a moderate raise in 2022 before becoming eligible for a nine-digit contract via free agency in 2023 (presuming good health).

Though he never got paid like one of the game’s biggest stars, nor was he, it’s safe to assume that at least in Clay Bellinger’s case, his 15 years of professional baseball provided at least a safety net for Cody until he signed his first professional deal.

Ronald Acuña Jr., like Cody, is also the son of a ballplayer. However, unlike Clay, Acuña Sr. never made it beyond Double-A, citing his own work ethic for his career’s shortcomings, as per César Augusto Márquez in La Vida Baseball. Determined to learn from his father’s mistakes, Acuña Jr. devoted his pubescent years to the weight lifting, practice, and hustle his father’s eschewed. By age-20, in 2018, Acuña was a five-tool stud, the top prospect in baseball, and had yet to approach his first million dollars earned. His early career earnings, despite his interstellar projections, were limited to a $100K signing bonus, three years of meager minor league wages, and a single year of MLB minimum wage. By 2019, he’d have to wait another two years before he could get rich off of his first of three arbitration deals, and then possibly, again assuming he stayed healthy, enter free agency and finally forget about money forever.

Instead, the Atlanta Braves offered Acuña a quicker route to acquiring the kind of wealth which could provide for himself, and the rest of his family for decades and decades to come; they offered him $100 million guaranteed over eight years. The Braves leveraged MLB’s unfree market, Acuña’s financial background, and the uncertainty of his future against him in order to guarantee control of baseball’s best young player until he turned 31, at a fraction of his real market value. Even though Acuña could earn another massive payday if he’s anywhere near as good as he is now when he becomes a free agent again in 2029, he’ll likely be one of the game’s best players being paid half as much as his uber-elite peers until then.

The other two most popular American professional sports leagues compensate their player bodies more evenly. The first overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft, Anthony Edwards, will make at least $20 million over the next two years, and the NFL’s, Joe Burrow, made more than that with his signing bonus, a total he’ll almost certainly double after his fifth pro season. MLB’s first overall pick in the 2020 Draft, Spencer Torkelson, made $8 million on draft night, but with the postponement of minor league baseball due to COVID, he won’t make another dime until it restarts, and won’t make much more until three years of service time in the bigs, then three more years until he can reach his market value, if he even makes it that far—three of baseball’s No. 1 overall picks never reached the majors.

Before his Heisman-winning 2018 fall campaign at Oklahoma, Kyler Murray had established himself as not only the nation’s most promising quarterback prospect, but one of the nation’s most exciting baseball players. In his sophomore spring, some of the same skills that made him the country’s best playmaking collegiate quarterback a few months later helped him excel on the diamond. His unparalleled speed and arm-strength instantly made him one of college baseball’s best defensive outfielders, manning the Sooners’ centerfield, and he flashed the ability to hit for both average and power, posting a .942 OPS. When it was the Oakland Athletics’ turn to make the sixth overall selection in the 2018 MLB Amateur Draft, they called Kyler’s name, even though he demanded he play out his junior fall football season at Oklahoma, his first chance to start full-time at quarterback in college. After running circles around the Big 12 from behind center, the Arizona Cardinals too, selected Murray with the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Though Murray had to forfeit a $4.5 million signing bonus from the A’s—they still retain his rights were he to return to baseball (as he’s expressed interest in doing)—that number is dwarfed by the guaranteed $35 million he’ll get for playing football. Through his second year in the league, Murray’s already made more than five times what he might have made through the same amount of time playing baseball.

Pat Connaughton, a reserve player for the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, has made more than $11 million in his five-year NBA career. He’s guaranteed another $16 million over the next three years, despite averaging under five points per game overall. Despite his modest pro pedigree, he’s made multiples of whatever number he might have sniffed by this time had he followed his original dream of becoming a Major League Baseball player. Even though he was at least as highly rated of a baseball prospect, basketball’s immediate paychecks were far more appealing to Connaughton, granted he could always return to baseball had things not initially panned out in the NBA.

The very best American athletes, like Kyler Murray, or even in the tier below him, like Pat Connaughton, are better off playing another professional sport if they can hack it. Baseball pays minor leaguers so little, they’ve created “income pooling” agreements amongst each other to offset some of the outrageous financial imbalance that undermines so many young athletes’ life after baseball. In MLB, it can take years to earn the life-changing paydays that these elite professional athletes so desire and deserve.

In basketball or football, those checks often come shortly after draft night. Baseball teams that derive a competitive advantage by sifting through talent in the minors and allowing the balky and injured to fall through the cracks hurt the future of the league by driving the country’s most talented athletes elsewhere. The Braves, by signing Ronald Acuña Jr. to an under-market deal, secured a competitive advantage for the next near-decade by having an MVP-caliber talent on their roster for a fraction of the price he deserves, but exacerbated the already existing problem of baseball’s underpaid labor force. Young men, armed with the knowledge of baseball’s predilection for skewering its youth, are undoubtedly wont to take their talents to other fields of play, diluting the game’s talent pool and frustrating the talent that remains. If MLB—both the players union who’s helped dra up an unequal playing field and the owners who exploit dream-chasing minor leaguers to play on unlivable wages—continue to eat their young, they do so at the risk of jeopardizing the excellence of the sport itself.