Baseball’s Young Stars Caught In Salary Trap

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Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels feels disrespected.

Milwaukee Brewers slugging MVP candidate Prince Fielder is flat-out ticked off.

The Phillies’ Ryan Howard, a former Rookie of the Year and MVP, is as unhappy as a guy who is making $10 million for a single season is going to be.

And I’m sure dozens of other young major league stars are irked that the salary system is designed to keep them underpaid compared with their early performance.

Well, pony up and bear it, boys, because baseball has only one way of keeping even a remote semblance of fiscal sanity in its uncapped-salary system, and it is the children who will continue to suffer.

Salary vs. major league service time - under a system where an average pitcher like Adam Eaton can command a ridiculous amount of money compared to his achievement and an MVP candidate like Chase Utley can set up his family for generations, the only thing baseball owners have on their side is the ability to delay when they have to break the bank for a player who hits the majors running out of the gate.

It’s not going to change.

“We view our system as more than a fair system,” Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin said about Fielder’s salary complaint. “You can’t worry about it. It is what it is.”

Of course, it’s unfair to a player like Fielder, who at 23 will make $670,000 this season despite finishing third in the National League MVP voting.

And considering Hamels, 24, is a lefthanded pitcher who went 15-5 with a 3.39 ERA and made the All-Star team in his first full season, the $500,000 salary the Phillies gave him for 2008 is a “low blow,” he said.

At $10 million, you can’t say that Howard is underpaid, but the Phillies only wanted to pay him $7 million before losing in arbitration.

But in the big picture, young, elite players like Hamels, Fielder and Howard are the exceptions, not the rule. Few players with their limited amount of major league service time are going to put up the type of numbers they have.

Most of the time, the salaries awarded are fair based on performance.

And again, control over salaries until a player accrues enough major league service to reach arbitration and ultimately free agency is the only sanity mechanism the owners have.

Because once a player proves his worth and gets the hammer, the bank-vault door is swinging wide open.

While individual players directly affected might gripe, you can bet the owners gladly would trade their salary system for one similar to the NBA and NHL.

And they’d kill to have the deal the NFL has.

Although those leagues pay bigger dollars up front to unproven talent, the tradeoff is salary-cap mechanisms that prevent owners from overspending their way into oblivion down the road.

It also prevents a few big-money teams from buying up all of the top talent because a field-leveling mechanism is inherently in place with salary caps.

Baseball owners would be glad to pay a young player like Hamels or Fielder more up front if the tradeoff was that they could get a cap on the salary that superstars like Alex Rodriguez or Josh Beckett could make.

That’s how it works in the NBA. LeBron James never will make as much in an annual salary as A-Rod.

Surely the Phillies would care less about overpaying Eaton if they knew they could erase his salary from the books the next season if he didn’t perform up to standards.

That’s the reality of having nonguaranteed contracts in the NFL.

Still, that doesn’t mean players like Hamels, Fielder and Howard won’t get their chance to extract a little revenge.

As long as they continue to perform, their day will inevitably come when they hold the upper hand over management.

And as Hamels alluded to, the only thing with a memory longer than an elephant’s is a professional athlete who feels he has been cheated out of money he deserved.

“He’s still got check marks for what they didn’t do before,” Hamels said about a player’s attitude going into future negotiations.

You can’t fault the Phillies or Brewers for taking a sound business approach based on the terms laid out for them.

Still, I’d make exceptions in the case of special talents like Hamels, Fielder and Howard.

If paying a kid a couple hundred thousand more than you have to now builds a little goodwill for when it comes to negotiating the mega-money contract down the road, I’d call it money well spent.

- John Smallwood, Philly Inquirer

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