And In This Corner….
As we approach the precipice of the December 1 deadline and the expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), I thought it might be a good idea to look into what exactly the issues are that could very well bring that old dreaded phrase back to our vernacular. That dreaded phrase has a few names. Such as “work stoppage”, “strike” and of course what we are staring into the face of this time around, “lockout”.
Whatever word they use this time around doesn’t matter to us, the Fans.
In plain terms the CBA is effectively the negotiated deal that oversees and regulates practically every policy of the operational association amongst labor (players) and management (team owners).
The discussions and dialogues on a new deal between these two sides have been fragmentary and fiery, to say the least. It is not a stretch of the imagination by any means to frankly state, these two sides do not like or trust each other whatsoever.
The industry wide belief, now that the World Series is over, is that time is not on their side to get a deal in place before the current deal expires at precisely at 11:59 PM EST on December 1.
It is widely speculated that the owners are all set to lockout the players as early as December 1st if a new and unlikely deal is not reached.
A “lockout” is simply a work stoppage or denial of employment initiated by the management of a company or organization during a labor dispute.
If there is a lockout and it extends through this winter it will certainly jeopardize the 2022 season or at the very least the customary opening up of it, and possibly the length of the season, as we saw in 1995 when they played 144 games.
So, what exactly does the players association (MLBPA) hope to accomplish during these tense negotiations?
Spoiler alert. It comes down to money.
The two sides are engaged in a battle over how the leagues’ revenues are allocated. MLBPA wants to address what they consider to be their diminishing share and of course the owners want to impede those efforts.
Taking a deeper dive into this battle, from the player’s perspective we know the following key points and issues.
The MLBPA claims that in recent years they have experienced an indifferent and sluggishly developed free agent marketplace with respect to the non-top of the food chain players, otherwise known as the “middle class of MLB”.
They have no argument when it comes to a Francisco Lindor, but have serious issues when it comes to the Matt Wieters of the league.
They feel that that the primary reason for that is that teams are deliberately relying on team-controlled players, as a way to cut and control costs. These are the players that are not yet qualified for salary arbitration or free agency.
They believe that approach has impaired the free agent market. They point to the fact that the average salary has dropped modestly in recent years while inflation has trended upward.
The average MLB salary has dropped 6.4% since the start of the 2017 season, when it reached $4.45 million, and Baseball’s middle class was hit the hardest.
The median salary, (an equal number of players that are above and below the average salary) was $1.15 million in 2021. That represent a decrease of $250,000 or 22% from $1.4 million in 2019 and a decrease of $500,000 or 43% from the peak of $1.65 million in 2015.
On opening day 2021 there were 901 players on active rosters. Of them, 418 had salaries under $1 million, including 315 under $610,000.00
In contrast, the top 50 highest-paid players were earning approximately 33.4% of all salaries and the top 100 highest paid players were earning approximately 52.6% of all salaries throughout the league.
Those statistics have been trending upward in recent years, and the MLBPA is not happy about it.
It should be noted that as veterans are released and replaced by younger players over the course of a season, the average and median salaries decline accordingly.
One MLBPA solution is to lower the baseline for Free Agency.
Currently, players have to have six full seasons of major-league service time to be eligible for free agency. Owners have hinted at a proposal of age-based free agency, such as free agency at age 29 1/2 years old. MLBPA is more interested in dropping the baseline to five years of service time, or under another scenario even less (see below).
Another MLBPA solution is to remove the perceived “loophole” of MLB service time.
Earlier this year I addressed this issue when the Jarred Kelenic and Seattle Mariner fiasco took place.
As it currently stands, to reach a year of service time, a player needs to be on the major league roster for 172 days out of 187 days. That means he must be on the roster for 92% percent of the year for a player to get credit for a full year of service time. Service time is the doorway to matters such as arbitration and free agency eligibility.
That policy opened the door for, what the MLBPA considers, a method for the owners to manipulate service time, and point to the Astros in 2014 with George Springer and the Cubs in 2015 with Kris Bryant, amongst others.
MLBPA believes that decreasing the number of days it takes to earn a year of service time would close the loophole and allow players to be arbitration and free agent eligible a full year earlier.
The other side of that coin is the owners can simply keep the players in question in the minor leagues a little longer.
No one benefits from that. The team, the players, and of course the fans.
But, as we know, the fans are last on that list.
When measuring on field value, it is clear for the most part that younger players have more value than older players do. However, when it comes to salary structure, the MLBPA feels the salary structure in place, which is guided by tenure instead of a player’s ability to perform, is inverse to that fact.
Under the current CBA, nearly all players that have accrued three years of MLB service time or less have their salary capped at the major-league minimum. After that point they become eligible for the salary arbitration process.
As a result, some of the best players in the league are earning a fraction of the salaries some older less productive players in the league earn.
As an example, Tampa Bay Rays’ spectacular outfielder Randy Arozarena over the period of his first 183 games played from 2019-2021 averages .276 with 28 home runs, 82 RBI and 26 stolen bases over a 162 game period. In 2021 he earned $581,200.00.
In contrast, Mets’ Francisco Lindor hit .230 with 20 home runs, 63 RBI and stole 10 bases (while causing a major divide in the Met’s clubhouse) earned $22.3 million plus a $21 million bonus for signing a 10 year $341 million contract that kicks off in 2022, for a total of $43.3 million in 2021.
You do not have to be a rocket scientist to see that Arozarena was underpaid in terms of his production by tens of millions of dollars.
The MLBPA sees this as inequitable and has thrown around some ideas that the Owners want nothing to do with. Such as increasing the minimum salary. Currently, the MLB minimum salary of $570,500 is less than the minimum salaries of the NFL ($660,000.00), NBA ($925,258.00), and NHL ($750,000.00).
Not exactly sitting very well with Tony Clark and the rest of the MLBPA, who are looking to nearly double the minimum salary.
Such a large increase to the minimum salary would raise the salary floor by a substantial amount and it would also allow the younger players who don’t last in the league long enough to be eligible for arbitration and free agency with significantly more financial security.
As the average career length in MLB trends downward, this become an even bigger factor for the MLBPA.
Another option the MLBPA is crafting is to lower the time the players need to become arbitration eligible back to two years (the original period of time when arbitration was enacted).
Another option of theirs is to set aside a reserve account of revenues to allocate to the players not yet eligible for arbitration.
Tanking is a term we hear quite a bit now in professional sports. Essentially what that means is the strategy of purposefully fielding non-competitive teams to benefit from league rules that underwrite losing teams.
Each year, regardless of the sport, we see organizations that field teams that have very little chance of succeeding in their leagues.
This is done so that the feeble losing team(s) are awarded the ability to acquire future “assets” and to improve draft position, which in theory enhances the team’s long-term position.
Obviously, this is abhorrent to the MLBPA objectives and aspirations.
The MLBPA would like to modify the manner in which draft order is decided so that teams are not effectively remunerated for being awful.
Is the practice of tanking really all about stock piling draft picks?
Due to the multiple revenue streams teams tap into to be profitable, such as digital content distribution, facility driven revenue such as ticket sales, parking and concessions to go along with the new gambling revenues that have exploded, teams are essentially guaranteed to not operate in the red.
With all of the various revenue streams pouring in we now have teams that just don’t care about wins and losses and thus refuse to make a bona fide attempt to field a competitive product.
That is not good for the league, the players and most of all the fans of these teams. It also skews players statistics and team win/loss records.
But, once again the Fans are last on that list.
The revenues from gambling were the tipping point for this circumstance, and in my opinion the leagues have opened up a can of worms that will cause much damage to professional sports.
It is almost laughable that in every single MLB clubhouse hangs a big sign that unambiguously informs all of Major League Rule 21(d) that proclaims that any player, umpire, or employee of a team or the league who bets on a game they’re not involved in will be banned from MLB for a year; if they are involved in the game, the ban is for life.
This dates back to right after the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal.
What is laughable is that when the players leave the club house and get to the field, rink or court they are surrounded by and inundated with sponsorship logos and ads for gambling sites and apps such as DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesar’s Sports Book, FanDuel, FoxBet, Barstools Sportsbook, etcetera.
Apparently, the lessons learned during the Black Sox scandal have been lost to time. As novelist George Santayana once famously wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Now, there appears to be no such concerns about the corrupting consequences of gambling. Manfred obviously does not read the history books, and is driven singularly by money, regardless of the risks involved.
All this while Pete Rose serves a lifetime ban.
MLB, NHL, NBA, and the NFL, and even some colleges, have all inked extremely profitable deals with the big sports book organizations.
In 2018 the Supreme Court shot down a federal ban on sports betting and the flood gates opened.
In 2020-2021 it became a $26 billion industry, and that amount is expected by most financial analysts to go through the roof over the next decade.
The future of money in sports is now gambling.
You may not agree, but I believe that is a very bad thing.
The surge of advertising and the boat loads of cash it generates dangerously places the integrity of the games we love at risk of serious corruption.
It is quite possible that the next giant gambling scandal might already be transpiring.
The MLBPA will undoubtedly push for their share of gambling revenues in the new CBA.
The MLBPA will make a strong argument that the supplementary revenue stream that owners now enjoy and categorize as “independent” would never exist outside the scope of the baseball games and the players.
The Owners will hold strong and fight hard. A very solid case to be made for either side.
Of course, as with all labor disputes in professional sports, the real losers are the fans. At the end of the day, the owners will still be billionaires and most of the players will be millionaires that will all be set for life.
Lastly, I was recently asked, what happens to the minor leaguers if they lockout the MLB players?
Historically, during MLB work stoppage the minor leagues continued to play. So if the 2022 MLB season is postponed due to the lockout, the farm teams should continue as if there is no work stoppage.
There is a track record for work stoppages if you go back to the 1970’s -1990’s.
The minor leagues were essentially untouched by MLB work stoppages. The only actual change experienced by the players down on the farm was that they received an increased level of attention that was paid to them. This was because networks, bereft of MLB content to broadcast, turned to the minors and broadcast the games, in some cases on a national basis.
Keep in mind that most minor league players are not actually members of the MLBPA, and there is no CBA in the minor leagues.
The one main exception, with respect to how it impacts the minor leaguers, would be that players on 40-man rosters are MLBPA union members. Because of that they would be foolish to cross the picket lines in the case of a strike, and would actually be considered scabs. In a lockout, since they are considered part of the MLBPA, they would therefore be locked out by owners.
The CBA negotiation is a complex issue that involves big money. I do not have a dog in this fight, so I can see both sides.
All that matters to us fans in April are 2 simple words: “play ball”!
Each day that passes makes that seem less likely. I hope I am wrong.