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Nightengale: Baseball’s Middle Class Disappears

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Philadelphia Phillies right fielder Bryce Harper (3) works out at Spectrum Field. Photo: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

By Bob Nightengale |

It was Major League Baseball’s center stage, with the Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves’ season-opener Thursday at Citizens Bank Park. 

Bryce Harper, who signed the richest free-agent contract in baseball history, a cool $330 million, was being unveiled for the first time in a Phillies uniform.

Harper got multiple standing ovations, with  the Phillies’ fans celebrating like was 1979 all over again – when Pete Rose made his Phillies debut.

It was a glorious afternoon, featuring some of the greatest players in all of baseball.

And some of the richest, too.

There were 20 players on the two teams – 13 on the Phillies – earning at least $5 million in salary this year, with three earning at least $20 million.

Looking across baseball’s landscape on opening day, there were 252 players on opening-day rosters making at least $5 million – according to USA TODAY Sports’ annual MLB salary survey – with 126 of them earning at least $10 million.

This comes in the wake of the $1.7 billion handed out in extensions to 22 players over the winter.

There may be plenty of players who have set up generations of their families for life, and while the young players wait for their day in salary arbitration, it’s the middle class that’s getting squeezed.

There are more than 850 players on opening-day rosters and injured lists, but only 89players are being paid between $3 million and $5 million.

You’re either rich, or making close to the minimum salary.

This winter’s free-agent signing landscape was dominated by players receiving only one-year and minor-league deals. Only 35 players signed multiple-year deals. In fact, just 13 players were signed to deals of more than two years, and only six got  four years or more.

Teams have shown they’ll pay the game’s biggest stars – and they have no choice but to pay their finest young players in salary arbitration shy of free agency – but the rest are feeling the squeeze.

“There’s an understanding right now in the way baseball are paying guys,” Phillies closer David Robertson said, “is that it’s just part of the gig. You work your way up, and once you get out of that range, your increase in pay is supposed to go up a lot. It’s just so hard to get there. It really is. It’s a hard sport.

“I’d love to see if change where everyone is supposed to get paid what they’re worth.”

No one would dare dispute that New York Yankees All-Star outfielder Aaron Judge is worth more than $684,300, Los Angeles Dodgers co-ace Walker Buehler should be paid more than $15,000 above the minimum salary ($555,000) and Milwaukee Brewers All-Star Josh Hader should be paid as much as any reliever in baseball, instead of $687,600.

Their day will come when they’re eligible for salary arbitration, but about how the likes of five-time All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, who signed a $3 million contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks, or former 20-game winner Gio Gonzalez, who was relegated to a minor-league contract worth $3 million with the Yankees.

“Although we continue to study the market, we don’t see data suggesting a trend of dollars going to top players taking away from any other class of players,” said Bruce Meyer, senior director of the player union’s collective bargaining and legal division. “What we do see is a trend of teams increasingly favoring players with less service time who are more subject to team control.”

The Yankees and Chicago Cubs each have 15 players earning at least $5 million on their opening-day rosters, and 18 of those 30 are making over $10 million.

But the middle class is virtually non-existent. There are just four players on those teams earning between $3 million to $5 million — all on the Cubs.

The Detroit Tigers have three players – Miguel Cabrera, Jordan Zimmermann and Nick Castellanos – earning a total of $64.5 million. The rest of the team is earning a combined $37 million.

And, of course, former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and four-time saves leader Craig Kimbrel are still unemployed.

“That’s still so hard to believe,” Robertson said. “We’d all like to see some changes.”

This article was republished with permission from the original publisher, USA Today. Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter and Facebook.

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