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Players richer than ever, but a possible labor war looms

The average player salary for Opening Day rosters will be a record $4.2 million, according to the Associated Press. Overall MLB revenue has soared to an estimated $9 billion, up a staggering 650 percent since the 1994-95 labor strike. Parity on the field is better than ever, with small-market teams such as the Oakland Athletics and Pittsburgh Pirates reaching the playoffs the past two seasons and the Tampa Bay Rays consistently competitive in recent years.

Players are making money. Owners are swimming in cash. Everybody should happy.

But it's possible we could still have a contentious labor negotiation when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement between the owners and Players Association expires after the 2016 season.

Check out this article by Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs, which includes a chart showing the percentage of player payroll of overall revenue through the years. In the early 2000s, that percentage peaked at around 55 percent; it's been in decline since, dropping to around 40 percent last season.

In many ways, Bud Selig's various schemes to increase revenue sharing have also worked to deflate player salaries in the face of increased revenue. While the Los Angeles Dodgers have blown past the luxury tax threshold, most teams have elected to remain under it or not far above it. The Yankees' 2014 Opening Day payroll of $197 million was their first under $200 million since 2007 and not much more than the $184 million of 2004. Boston's payroll has increased just $13 million since 2007. The luxury tax has worked exactly as the owners intended: a limit on payroll spending.

Will this lead to baseball's biggest labor war in more than 20 years? It's certainly possible, not that you hear players complaining about salaries.

In his article, Grow writes: "So what can the MLBPA realistically do to reverse this trend? To some extent, the decline in the players’ share of revenues may be beyond the union’s control; the MLBPA can’t force teams to act less efficiently, for instance. And while the union could, theoretically, try to force MLB to reverse its course on revenue sharing and the luxury tax, those ships have likely already sailed (the MLBPA has agreed to some form of revenue sharing and luxury tax in each of the last four CBAs)."

Recognizing all that, some folks -- including, perhaps even Scott Boras -- are of the mind that the MLBPA should consider doing the unthinkable: agree to a salary cap.

Because the salary caps in the other pro sports are generally fixed at a certain percentage of the league’s overall revenues, a salary cap could -- rather counter-intuitively -- help reverse the recent trend by allocating a higher share of league revenues to the players. However, because some teams will inevitably elect to spend less on player salaries than the maximum amount allowed under the cap, a salary cap alone is unlikely to guarantee players a consistent share of league revenues.

While owners' profits have increased in recent years due to ever-increasing local cable-TV deals, MLB teams are also spending much more on non-player resources. Front-office staffs are larger than ever, both in baseball operations and business affairs. Teams are hiring more coaches and larger training staffs and committing resources in other areas. Those things cost money -- maybe a minor pittance compared to signing Clayton Kershaw or Max Scherzer -- but it does add up. So collecting 50-plus percent of revenue might be unrealistic, but the union might wish to get closer to 50 percent.

Or maybe it's a non-issue. Maybe the union will focus on things such as protecting players like Kris Bryant or increasing the minimum salary or lowering the service time needed for arbitration. Maybe the large-market owners will band together and fight against protecting the Tampa Bays and Oaklands of the world and demand less revenue sharing. Maybe the owners will be more worried about keeping down amateur bonuses or instituting an international draft to fight with the players. But it seems likely we'll have a big clash about something. I have a feeling it won't be smooth sailing to the new CBA.