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Starting Nine: No goodwill but common ground between Cole and Pirates?

| Saturday, March 5, 2016, 8:18 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole sits in the bullpen at Pirate City Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Bradenton, Fla.

Written by Pirates beat reporter Travis Sawchik, “The Starting Nine” is a weekly feature composed of quick-hit thoughts and analysis on the Pirates and MLB. This feature will appear every Sunday.

1. There has been little goodwill created between Gerrit Cole and the Pirates this spring. Cole expressed his displeasure about his 2016 contract, and the negotiations, to the Tribune-Review last Sunday. How much harm has been done? It's worth noting former Philadelphia ace Cole Hamels was in a similar position with the Phillies in 2008 when the club renewed his contract at $500,000, $200,000 less than what he had asked. He called his final pre-arbitration contract a “low blow.” Ten months later, entering his first year of arbitration, he signed a three-year, $20 million deal.

While the Pirates and Cole have not spoken about a multi-year deal yet, both Cole and Pirates perhaps could find some common ground in a deal that covers arbitration.

2. The Pirates should be motivated to seek a contract that would create cost certainty and perhaps avoid Cole earning $20-million-plus in arbitration in 2019, a salary that could conceivably force the front office to trade him before his final year of club control (See: David Price and the Tampa Bay Rays). Cole is aware of how many young, hard-throwing arms have had Tommy John surgery. Perhaps he would trade some earning potential for security, though it is unlikely the Boras client would sign a contract that delayed his free agency.

What should players fight for?

3. There is an interesting sidebar to the Cole contract drama, and that is Cole has replaced Neil Walker as the Pirates' union player rep. This is the last year of the current collective bargaining agreement between the players and owners.

4. Cole is part of a new wave of young stars who have been hurt relatively more by the pre-arbitration structure.

Since 2009, the minimum salary, to which players with zero to three years of service time are subjected to has increased 24 percent, while the average player salary has increased 38 percent.

And the system is particularly unfair to young arms, which are more susceptible to career-altering injury. Jacob deGrom — who already is 28 — like Cole is in his final year of pre-arbitration. He was so upset with his contract he refused to sign it Friday.

5. A broader concern for players is this: While players' average salary increased to a record level last season, union president Tony Clark told the Tribune-Review last spring the players' share of revenue had fallen by some 10 percent since its peak in the early 2000s, reportedly about 62 percent, to below 50 percent. In a $9 billion industry, that's $1 billion redistributed from the players to the owners in about a decade.

6. This trend is the confluence of several factors. The luxury tax suppresses larger-market payrolls to a degree, hundreds of young players over the last decade agreed to club-freindly extensions, and in the PED-testing era players are younger, meaning there are hundreds of fewer expensive free agent seasons to purchase.

Seasons played by 30-and-older players:

1998-2003: 1,934*

2008-13: 1,670

* — last five-year period before PED testing

7. Ironically, players today would benefit from the salary-cap system the owners instituted, albeit briefly, on Dec. 23, 1994, during the last strike. (It was never put into practice as a federal judge, Sonia Sotomayor, issued an injunction on April 1, 1995.) But the cap, with a floor, like in other sports, would guarantee players roughly a 50-50 split of revenue.

8. The system the owners briefly instituted replaced arbitration with restricted free agency, which today, in an era when careers are shortening, would allow players to test the market earlier. Perhaps with new player voices, players will begin to discuss new concerns. Perhaps the upcoming CBA talks will not be as easy as the last. Fans don't care much for fights between billionaires and millionaires, but labor peace keeps players on the field.

9. As for the clubs, the players' contract structure in the current CBA is friendly to small-market clubs. Clubs control players' primes for below-value prices.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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