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The Yankees’ impact on MLB’s labor strife

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With deep pockets and a plethora of young talent, the Yankees could deepen or lessen the MLBPA’s existing tension

League Championship Series - Houston Astros v New York Yankees - Game Five
These guys are good, and are going to get expensive
Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the offseason hot stove has been a cold one. Top free agents are still without jobs and the “middle class” of available players have found themselves shut out. There are a number of reasons for this, but the most significant, in my opinion, is the preference for younger talent.

In past years, winning teams emphasized “veteran presence” and documented track records over the high-ceiling of unproven rookies and sophomores. A wider use of PEDs and fewer tools for evaluating and projecting prospects kept older players on major-league rosters for longer. At the turn of the millennium, 44.9% of all plate appearances went to players over 30. By 2017, that number has shrunk to just over 35%. Despite still taking the lion’s share of salaries, over-30s are struggling to stay relevant in today’s MLB.

The New York Yankees are a perfect display of this dichotomy, with over-30 players accounting for just 40% of the team’s plate appearances in 2017, and a huge chunk of them coming from the Chris Carter backup plan, Jacoby Ellsbury, and the cost of acquiring Tommy Kahnle (Todd Frazier). In fact, of the four players over 30 with the most plate appearances in pinstripes last year, only one is still on the 40-man roster. With a roster chock full of young talent, and even more on the way, you can expect to see that 40% decline in 2018.

This shift to younger talent isn’t just changing the mechanics and physics of the game, but its economics as well. Younger players have, and will continue to, feel they deserve a greater cut of leaguewide salaries than they’re getting. There’s already tension between the union and the league, and whispers of tension within the union itself. Older players are obviously concerned with landing themselves a big payday, while young players are asked to perform at a higher level than ever for less money.

The Yankees, with their rare combination of spending ability and excess of sub-30 All-Star talent, are then in a nearly-unique position to deepen or lessen the woes of the MLBPA. Their decisions regarding how to compensate their young stars will affect those divisions within the union more than most teams.

Aaron Judge, for example, doesn’t become arbitration eligible until the 2020 season—one year before the expiration of the CBA, no less—which will be right around the time he starts to get very expensive. Buying out Judge’s arb years with a longer-term extension would not only keep a great player in New York through his prime, but would help alleviate the strains younger players feel as a whole, at the cost of driving older players further into the wilderness.

The same can be said for players like Gary Sanchez and Luis Severino, who become arb eligible in 2020 and 2019, respectively. Should the Yankees go the other direction and sign their stars year-to-year through the arbitration process, they’d hurt the cause of the sub-30 class in baseball.

What makes the Yankees’ case so fascinating is the mixup of incentives. It almost always makes more financial sense to lock up your young stars, buying out their prime years, and letting them walk once they reach a decline stage around age-34 or so. However, anything that drives a wedge between factions of the union is in line with the interests of ownership.

There’s three years before the expiration of the current CBA. That’s three years for the economic landscape to change drastically, and the signs of an impending work stoppage to disappear. Make no mistake, though, a divided union won’t be in any position to properly bargain, and the Yankees hold the influence to make or break the union.