Illustration: Lazaro Gamio/Axios

Major League Baseball is the only major U.S. professional sport without a salary cap. But with free agency moving at a glacial pace for the second straight offseason, there is growing concern among players that the league's "luxury tax" has morphed into one.

Be smart: Each season, clubs that exceed a predetermined threshold ($197 million last year, $206 million this year) must pay a "luxury tax" on each dollar spent above that threshold.

What's happening: Last winter, an increasing number of front offices made it a priority to stay below the tax, and it's been more of the same this year.

By the numbers: Just two teams — the Boston Red Sox and the Washington Nationals — paid the luxury tax in 2018, down from five in 2017 and six in 2016.

  • Those two teams paid a combined $14.4 million in taxes, the lowest amount ever paid under the current system (put in place in 2002).
  • After paying the tax for 15 straight years, the New York Yankees avoided it last season. Same with the Los Angeles Dodgers, who had paid it five straight times.

The big picture: Some players believe the owners are using the luxury tax as a convenient excuse to keep payrolls down, with front offices going out of their way to talk about the tax publicly like it's this horrible thing when, in reality, it's peanuts.

  • Proof: For going nearly $50 million over last year's $197 million limit, the Red Sox were taxed just under $12 million. That's nothing.
  • The other side: Repeat luxury tax "offenders" see their tax rates increase exponentially. Therefore, it does make financial sense for teams to dip under the threshold and reset their tax rates like the Yankees and Dodgers just did.

The bottom line, via Sports Illustrated's Jon Tayler:

  • "When MLB instituted the luxury tax ... the idea was simple: keep teams from spending too much. Ostensibly, that helps the little fish keep up with the big ones, but in reality, it was an owner-approved plan to lower spending across the game."
  • "[So] let's call this what it really is. ... It's not a luxury tax. It's a salary cap. And with teams cutting spending by over $100 million in 2018, it's a cap that's getting harder and harder with every passing year."

Go deeper: MLB's "riches of free agency" no longer exist

Go deeper

How Trump's push to reopen schools could backfire

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Trump administration’s full-steam-ahead push to fully reopen schools this fall is on a collision course with the U.S.' skyrocketing coronavirus caseload and its decades-long neglect of public education.

Why it matters: Getting kids back to school is of paramount importance for children and families, especially low-income ones. But the administration isn’t doing much to make this safer or more feasible.

Coronavirus squeezes the "sandwich generation"

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

As the coronavirus poses risks and concerns for the youngest and oldest Americans, the generations in the middle are buckling under the increasing strain of having to take care of both.

Why it matters: People that make up the so-called sandwich generations are typically in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and in their prime working years. The increasing family and financial pressures on these workers means complications for employers, too.

Why Scranton matters again in 2020

Biden and Clinton visit Biden's childhood home in Scranton in 2016. Photo: Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The hometown of Joe Biden and "The Office" is polishing its perennial status as a guidepost for the nation's political mood.

Driving the news: Biden returns to Scranton, Pa., today with a campaign stop just outside the city limits at a metalworking plant, where he'll deliver remarks on a plan to create jobs and "help America build back better."