Democrats and Republicans agree upon very little these days, but, luckily for Major League Baseball, protecting the national pastime seems to be one area of bi-partisanship. How else to explain a bill sponsored by a Kentucky Republican and Illinois Democrat that is designed to exempt low-income workers from protection under the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA)? Apparently, sports and politics make the strangest bedfellows.

In a rare show of Congressional cooperation, Reps. Brett Guthrie and Cheri Bustos have co-authored H.R. 5580, better known as the “Save America’s Pastime Act”. Who could argue with that? As it turns out, just about every professional baseball player who isn’t a member of the MLBPA because what H.R. 5580 hopes to save the American pastime from is having to pay THEM a higher wage.

The impetus for the bill stems from an existing lawsuit that has sought to apply the terms of the FLSA to minor leaguers. Led by former pitcher turned lawyer Garret Broshuis, the litigation has been winding its way through the court system since 2014, picking up dozens of plaintiffs along the way. Recent revisions to the FLSA upping the overtime ante for eligible employees has only added to the potential impact of the pending case. So, instead of rolling the dice on the outcome of a trial, baseball has sought a legislative circumvention, and found a bi-partisan Congress willing to help.

Not surprisingly, news of the “Save America’s Pastime Act” has been met with near universal and justifiable derision from outside the industry. However, Reps. Guthrie and Bustos aren’t the real villains, and the Act itself isn’t the cause of injustice. Rather, what makes the current predicament faced by most minor leaguers so unfair are the antiquated binds of baseball’s labor system.

MLB has argued that its minor leaguers should be exempt from the FLSA because they are essentially apprentices who are learning on the job with the hope of earning a rare, but lucrative opportunity in the future. It’s hard to argue with that description. And yet, it fails because, at the beginning of their careers, when they are most vulnerable, professional baseball players have no say in the terms of their employment. Because of the Rule IV draft and service time confinements dictated by the vestiges of the reserve clause, a player essentially becomes property at the beginning of his career. The idea of players as apprentices sounds quaint, until you acknowledge they aren’t opting for that arrangement, but are being forced to accept it.

The exploitation of minor league players seems to cry out for intervention. However, though well-intentioned, those who argue for higher wages in the minors often overlook the potential consequences. There’s no way to deny that the application of FLSA rules to minor league salaries would significantly alter the current structure of the system. Paying players by the hour would be untenable (the cost of compliance alone could be prohibitive), and even bumping everyone up to the at least $913 per week prescribed by law would take a financial toll. Some will argue that as a nearly $10 billion industry, MLB could easily absorb the cost, but that doesn’t mean it will. So, unless one is prepared to advocate for a much more dramatic change to baseball’s labor rules, a narrow focus on monthly salary not only misses the point, but has the potential to do more harm than good.

Hypothetical Impact of Applying FLSA Rules to Rookie League Labor Cost (Pulaski Yankees)

Players Current Salary/Month Months Total
32  $1,100.00 3  $ 105,600.00
Players FLSA Salary/Week Weeks Total
32  $913.00 12  $350,592.00

Note: Salary excludes potential college scholarship funding and $25 per diem on the road.
Source: milb.com, Department of Labor

Take the Yankees, for example. The franchise currently has five rookie ball affiliations. Under the current financial structure, that might make sense, but what if FLSA rules are implemented? If so, labor costs for a single Rookie League team could more than triple (not to mention the ripple effects at higher levels), and, at that point, the Yankees might decide four teams were more than enough. Who knows, maybe the Pulsaki Yankees wouldn’t make the cut? If the Yankees pared down their rookie ball affiliations, not only could a small town in Virginia lose its team (and the seasonal jobs it creates), but those players who weren’t relocated could face a much earlier end to their big league dream. For example, does Icezack Flemming need a roster spot more than he needs a living wage at this point in his career? Although it’s shame such players often have to pick between the two, it’s better than not having a choice at all.

Good intentions alone do not solve problems, especially when it’s the government extending a helping hand. Minor league players absolutely deserve fairer pay, but any attempt to bring about change must carefully consider the ramifications. That’s why the answer isn’t a court mandated settlement or a legislative exemption. A better way to address the current inequities would be in MLB’s upcoming collective bargaining agreement negotiations. Between millionaire players and billionaire owners, there should be a way to collectively provide for fairer compensation in the minor leaguers without jeopardizing the system that has served the game so well. Otherwise, both sides will deserve whatever solution government can inflict upon them.

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(The following was originally published at SB*Nation’s Pinstripe Alley)

The Yankees haven’t yet been able to bolster their starting staff with a key addition, which has been the cause of great concern in Yankees Universe. All winter long, fans and team executives have repeatedly stated that the off season resolves around pitching, pitching, pitching, but maybe they’ve all been looking at the wrong end of the staff? Instead of seeking out other teams for reinforcements, perhaps the team, and its fans, should start looking inward? If relief is on the way, it could be coming from the bullpen.

In 2011, Yankees’ relievers posted an ERA of 3.12, which was the team’s sixth lowest rate since 1974. The bullpen’s fWAR of 7 was also the Yankees’ sixth highest total over the same span, which helps explain why the Bronx Bombers were able to win 97 games with a starting staff that stumbled down the stretch and finished the season with an ERA above 4.00.

ERA Differential between Yankees’ Rotation and Bullpen, Since 1974
Source: fangraphs.com

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Most Yankees’ fans have probably been looking forward to 2012 since Alex Rodriguez swung and missed at the last pitch of the 2011 ALDS, but with a New Year fast upon us, what better time to take one last look back at the 2011 season? Instead of getting bogged with subjective recollections of the year’s most significant moments, it’s much simpler to let Win Probability Added (WPA) do all the heavy lifting. After all, with over 6,300 plate appearances to recall, more than a few high highlights, and low lights, might be dimmed by the shortcomings of memory.

Yankees’ 2011 WPA Distribution

Source: Baseball-reference.com

Looking at the graph above, it’s easy to see why so much of a baseball season can seem like a blur. Over 57% of Yankees’ plate appearances registered a WPA of 2% or less, while 84% of trips to the plate moved the needle by 5% or less. Of course, without all of these seemingly inconsequential moments, the dramatic events that exist as outliers wouldn’t be possible. Listed below are those highlights and lowlights, both ranked by WPA.

10 Best Plate Appearances, Ranked by WPA

Source: Baseball-reference.com

10 Worst Plate Appearances, Ranked by WPA

Source: Baseball-reference.com

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Two of the most influential members of the Yankees’ front office took to the airwaves this morning to promote the upcoming Pinstripe Bowl, and not surprisingly, each interview touched on the team’s offseason plans. President Randy Levine, who was a guest on FOX 5’s Good Day New York, and COO Lonn Trost, who appeared on WFAN’s Boomer and Carton morning radio show (hosted by Kim Jones and Chris Carlin), each fielded several questions about what the Yankees are doing, or not doing, and their responses suggested the organization has a coherent party line.

Randy Levine (l) and Lonn Trost (r) flank Derek Jeter during a ceremony honoring his 3,000th hit. (Photo: Getty Images)

Responding to the question about whether the team’s spending philosophy has changed, Trost dismissed the idea that the Yankees were being more cautious, but stated that the team was trying to be smarter. According to Trost, the Yankees do not believe the dollars being spent in the current market are commensurate with the abilities of the players available, putting the organization in a position to depend on its minor league system. In particular, Trost cited Manny Banuelos, Dellin Betances, Hector Noesi, Jesus Montero, and Austin Romine as prospects that could make an impact next season. He also suggested that because of the team’s high expectations for those players, there hasn’t been a need to overspend as in the past.

Levine’s segment on GDNY was much shorter than Trost’s appearance on WFAN, and the hosts didn’t have the same sports background as Jones and Carlin, but there were several pointed questions about the Yankees’ winter designs. When asked about the team’s need of pitching, Levine responded that the organization was always looking to get better and that if an opportunity presented itself, Brian Cashman would be on it. Levine also touched on the Yankees’ potential interest in Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, stating that it was in the best interest of the organization to keep their level of involvement a secret.

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Regarding Hiroki Kuroda, and with apologies to Winston Churchill, never before have so many written so much about a pitcher whose accomplishments are so few. As the offseason has dragged on without a big move by the Yankees, fans of the team have grown increasingly impatient, and Kuroda has become their cause célèbre.

Ed Whitson sports a grin on the day he signed with the Yankees. It would be one of the last times he smiled while in pinstripes.

In his brief four-year career, Kuroda has been a solid starter, posting a cumulative WAR of 8.6 and ERA+ of 114. However, the Dodgers’ right hander will be 37 next year, so, even if his transition from the N.L. West wasn’t already a concern, the risks associated with his age would be reason enough for pause. Of course, that doesn’t mean Kuroda wouldn’t represent an upgrade in the Yankees’ shaky rotation, but at the reported cost of $12 million (not to mention the corresponding luxury tax hit of roughly $5 million), it’s hard to argue that the marginal value would justify the additional expenditure.

Back in the winter of 1984, the Yankees were in a similar situation. Despite having a top offensive team, which was bolstered by the earlier addition of Rickey Henderson, the pitching staff was a jumble of question marks (and there wasn’t a CC Sabathia to serve as an anchor). As luck would have it, however, there was pitcher from the N.L. West available on the free agent market. His name was Ed Whitson.

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Closers have been in both high demand and overabundant supply this offseason.  Jonathan Papelbon set the market early with a 4-year, $50 million contract, and since then, the likes of Heath Bell, Joe Nathan, and Frank Francisco have fallen in line. Meanwhile, Ryan Madson and Francisco Cordero remain on the free agent market, while names like Carlos Marmol, Andrew Bailey, and Joakim Soria continue to be mentioned as hot commodities on the trade front.

Papelbon's four-year deal with the Phillies has set the market for closers. (Photo: Getty Images)

When the Yankees signed Rafael Soriano last winter, it seemed like a reach at the time, and this year’s offseason activity has confirmed it. At 3-years and $35 million, Soriano’s AAV of $11.7 million is just a shade below Papelbon’s and well in excess of what the Marlins and Rangers gave to Bell and Nathan, respectively. Such is the advantage of being the only closer available on the market, especially during a year in which the Yankees aren’t trying to stay on a budget.

Despite the market glut, it seems likely that teams still wishing to acquire a closer will have to pay a hefty price in terms of dollars or prospects. That won’t impact the Yankees, however, because the team’s bullpen is both strong and deep. In fact, Soriano projects to be the “seventh inning guy”, which is very impressive when you consider he would be the closer on many other teams. So, perhaps Brian Cashman should be thinking about leveraging the Yankees’ relative strength and using the inflated closer market to help unload a contract he didn’t want in the first place?

With $25 million owed over the next two seasons, Soriano isn’t cheap. However, if the Yankees were willing to eat about $5 million, it would reduce his AAV to $10 million, or just over the $9 million that the Marlins will be paying Heath Bell. At first glance, that still seems too high, but when you compare the two pitchers over their careers, a similar salary seems appropriate. Granted, Bell has been healthier and occupied the closer’s role for longer, but the extra year on his contract could be viewed as the premium for that experience.

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