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TORONTO — The free agent market was a dud this winter, leaving Major League Baseball players and their agents seething.

Ultimately, baseball's average salary compared to 2017 amounted to a cost-of-living bump, as it rose 3% — and the ramifications from this depressed market might only be beginning.

In USA TODAY's annual study of opening-day payrolls, the average salary this season is $4.63 million compared with $4.47 million last year.

A record 130 players will earn at least $10 million, compared with 124 players a year ago and 107 players in 2016, led by Angels center fielder Mike Trout's $34.08 million salary.

Only three players received contracts in excess of $100 million this offseason, and just Eric Hosmer ($144 million) of the Padres and Yu Darvish ($126 million) of the Cubs received more than a five-year deal.

And the owners' unwillingness to spend this winter, for whatever reason, will have a greater impact in coming years.

Major League Baseball teams spent $1.98 billion on 65 multiyear contracts, compared with $2.98 billion on 57 deals a year ago and $2.06 billion on 30 multiyear contracts in 2016.

Just 10 teams managed to even spend the $50 million they received for their cut from the MLB Advanced Media sale to Disney, invoking anger from the union and threats of potential collusion grievances.

"I think we have to let this thing play out three to five years," said ESPN analyst Alex Rodriguez, whose $275 million contract finally is cleared off the Yankees' books, "to see where the chips lay. I just think teams are smarter and more disciplined with management and ownership."

Certainly, the marquee opening-day matchup of the Yankees vs. Jays — two giants of the sport, with overflowing revenue, deep pockets and a burning desire to win — symbolize the angst of the players union.

These franchises have six players who will earn $20 million or more this season and 13 players earning at least $10 million. Yet when it came to free agency this offseason, the Yankees spent only $14 million while the Blue Jays paid $17 million.

Sure, the Yankees took on a major commitment with their acquisition of slugger Giancarlo Stanton, Yet who would ever have imagined we'd see the day the Athletics ($18 million) would spend more than both franchises, dwarfing even the $4 million the powerful Dodgers spent?

"It's a weird time," Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy said. "I read a lot of articles about it, the collusion talk, the poor execution of the CBA, and all the things have been thrown out there. I don't have an answer. I'm not in position to accuse anybody of anything.

"There's obviously a reason why this year something dramatic happened in free agency that hadn't happened before. So I think that's our job as the players, as well as MLB, to figure out what's going on here how we can right that."

The Yankees and Dodgers, who had the two highest payrolls in baseball a year ago, have shed more than $100 million, with the Yankees now ranking just 10th in payroll ($160.7 million) and the Dodgers right behind at $156.8 million.

Both the payrolls of the Yankees ($165 million) and Dodgers ($184 million) are higher when factoring salaries paid for players no longer on their roster. Yet even when factoring benefits and salaries to players on the 40-man roster, both clubs remain below the $197 million luxury tax threshold, fulfilling key offseason goals.

This will be the lowest Yankees payroll in a quarter-century, and the first time they've ducked below the luxury tax since it was implemented in 2003. They've paid $341 million in penalties since, but should they remain below the threshold, the Yankees would pay a 20% penalty instead of a 50% penalty next year, when a prized free agent market headed by Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and possibly Clayton Kershaw comes online after the 2018 season.

The Dodgers spent a record $270 million in 2015 but have lopped nearly $100 million off their major league commitments. The downstream effect on free agents has been profound.

"When you have 30 teams thinking the same way and using the same metrics," Rodriguez says, "it creates an opportunity for someone to counter that."

Enter the Giants. San Francisco, for the first time since MLB began keeping official records, will have the sport's biggest payroll. Players on the Giants' opening-day roster will earn $220.3 million, $64 million more than the team ever spent at the start of a season, with 10 players earning at least $13.5 million.

The Giants' payroll, however includes infielder Pablo Sandoval's entire $19.6 million salary. The Red Sox, who released Sandoval last year, are paying all but $545,000 of his salary.

With Sandoval's salary dollars factored in, Boston has the highest payroll at $224.2 million.

The union's biggest concern, however, are the rebuilding teams that aren't aggressively trying to win. There's a growing sentiment among players and agents suggesting that a salary cap might be necessary in the future providing that there's a salary basement floor.

Ten teams are spending less than $100 million on their opening-day roster, with the Athletics ranking 30th in expenditures at $62.65 million.

"This winter was a little crazy, and we got a glimpse at what can possibly happen," says Machado, who is expected to be heavily pursued by the Yankees. "Hopefully we'll see a difference next year, for all of our sakes."


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March 29, 2018


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