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25 years since MLBPA strike, Zack Britton prepares Yankees for impending storm


After an offseason full of veteran players, including elites, who waited deep into spring training to sign a contract, Zack Britton was one of the lucky ones.

The relief ace pitched to a 2.88 ERA in pinstripes, which has clearly showcased his ability to force batters to pound his sinker into the soil, the Yankees rewarded Britton’s good play with a three-year, $39 million contract. He’s being paid like a high-end reliever with multiple years of high-pressure experience — he led the Orioles through numerous pennant chases. He did well for himself, but many of his colleagues in baseball did not, waiting deep into free agency to sign contracts commensurate with their worth.

The subject has been timely — 25 years and one day ago players walked out over what Britton characterized present day as many of the same concerns affecting his colleagues.

“Arbitration, free agency without a salary cap. These are the heart of our issues,” Britton said before the Yankees game against the Orioles on Tuesday. “Everyone knows it was a pretty slow free agency.”

Britton, the MLB Player’s Association rep for the Yankees, wasn’t always as involved and passionate about labor issues — he didn’t have any union workers in his immediate family, so his formal introduction to worker’s rights came from playing baseball, first in 2011 with the Orioles.

Zack Britton, among other former, current, and future free agents know the tension between teams and the MLBPA remains and won't let up anytime soon. (Elsa / Getty Images)

It was retired pitcher Jeremy Guthrie who walked a young Britton through the collective bargaining agreement. He called the experience “eye-opening.”

Britton learned through negotiating that the game he played since he was a child was not, in fact, “a kid's game anymore.” Rather, he said “it’s a business. The players have rights.”

“It's easy to think that it's just a game and stuff like that, at the end of the day it's entertainment. Just like any other entertainment industry, it's about profit for the owners. Right? Otherwise, they wouldn't be doing it.”

Britton also noted since the last strike, league revenues have “gone through the roof.”

And he’s correct — revenues have reached record highs for 16 consecutive years, crossing $10 billion in 2017. Meanwhile, the percentage of revenue being paid in player salaries has been on the decline, which Maury Brown of Forbes corroborated in January.

You don’t have to stretch your imagination to see how this could impact players in the Yankees locker room.

Stars Didi Gregorius and Dellin Betances, both free agents, have played their best baseball through their late 20’s: Gregorius set the Yankees shortstop home run record in consecutive seasons and garnered down-ballot MVP votes. Betances has been arguably the most dominant relief pitcher in baseball. Since securing a full-time big-league role in 2014, he’s led all relievers in strikeouts with 607. Per Baseball Reference, he’s ranked second in WAR, trailing only his teammate, Britton.

But Gregorius, who worked his way back from Tommy John surgery but has recently been fighting general soreness in his fingers, has been having his worst year at the plate since 2015. Meanwhile, Betances has yet to play as he works through numerous shoulder and lat setbacks. While it’s far from unreasonable to believe they won’t recover — Gregorius hit a three-run home run on Monday and the Yankees have ramped up Betances’ bullpen sessions — their theoretical performance prime all came well before they were able to hit free agency. They might still have great baseball left, but if so, it’s likely less of it, at least from the perspective of their current team.

It could be understood how the Yankees would psyche themselves and their fanbase out from offering either stud a competitive contract: The Yankees have a crowded infield and a great pen. Gleyber Torres is 22 and can play the same position as Gregorius. DJ LeMahieu and Adam Ottavino — two players Brian Cashman had already explicitly cited as sufficient reason the Yankees did not acquire veteran pitching help like Patrick Corbin and Dallas Keuchel — are still under contract and they fill similar roles on the team as Didi and Dellin, respectively.

Fans at Yankee Stadium hold up a sign during the New York Yankees-Baltimore Orioles game in New York on Aug. 10, 1994, two days before players around the league went on a labor strike.
Fans at Yankee Stadium hold up a sign during the New York Yankees-Baltimore Orioles game in New York on Aug. 10, 1994, two days before players around the league went on a labor strike. (MARK LENNIHAN / Associated Press)

A very good (and very rich — the Yankees are the second most valuable team in all of professional sports) team could compromise their best chance at greatness next season, yet walk away in the name of managing costs.

Part of Britton’s job as a player rep is to help younger talent understand what’s at stake, the same way Guthrie and others taught him when he entered the league.

“The increase in revenue for this sport has gone through the roof. Players salaries has pretty much stayed flat,” Britton said. “Seems like a lot of the younger players now especially (during) the last two free agencies, are really involved.”

Still, Britton has admitted the impending labor fight will “be an uphill battle,” but that that his colleagues hold enough power. “We feel like the game is not the same without the product on the field, obviously. They’re not coming to watch the owners.”

“If Mike Trout's not on the field, I mean, do you want to go see not-Mike Trout? No. We feel like we're in a good spot.”

Britton ain’t Mike Trout, either. Nor are his teammates approaching free agency, or the young, pre-arbitration stars dotting the roster making at or near the league minimum.

But they don’t have to be Mike Trout. They’re still the product.