Representatives from Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association will meet Wednesday for the third straight day of what could be at least a week of meetings as they attempt to hammer out an agreement prior to the end of the month. February 28 is the deadline set by the league for starting spring training with no loss of regular-season games, so it’s kind of important in that regard.
But wait, wouldn’t it have been much easier had the league simply started this process earlier? Owners initiated a lockout, waited six weeks to begin negotiations, and have made it very clear that certain topics — like reducing the time it takes to reach free agency — are non-starters. Apologies if I’m coming across like Medina Spirit’s jockey, it’s just that the most basic facts contradict anything Ralph Bowden tweets.
pitchers really love talking with their hands pic.twitter.com/dJJon6szH5
— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) February 23, 2022
Speaking of facts, I wanted to steal a page from the MLB Trade Rumors playbook and take a look at where both sides stand on several key points. I’ll list the most important of those last, both as a narrative construct and in order to increase engagement time to drive that sweet, sweet blog revenue. Hey, these private jets don’t fuel themselves.
MLB moved from top three picks to top four, MLBPA lowered its ask from eight teams to seven. The union would also like to implement guidelines that would disqualify teams from the lottery if they finish too low in the standings for two or more seasons. The definition of “too low” varies, with teams in large markets having tighter parameters for remaining competitive.
Sure feels like moving to five settles this one pretty easily.
Draft pick forfeiture for signing free agents
MLB has proposed the elimination of draft-pick forfeiture for teams that sign free agents, though the league would still like to give picks to teams that lose good players in free agency. This means eliminating the qualifying offer system, which on the surface appears to be a huge win for the players. Ah, but there’s a poison pill in the form of much harsher competitive balance tax penalties, which we’ll look at later.
Both sides have agreed to increase the number of teams in the postseason, with the league asking for 14 and the union pushing to just 12. A premature report about an agreement on the new format held that the top seed would get a bye while the No. 2 seed would pick its opponent from among four wild cards. The No. 3 seed would pick from among the three remaining teams, then the last two would play one another.
This is a huge bargaining chip for the players, who have said they will not agree to expanded playoffs at all this season if they are not paid for 162 games. It’s very important to note that they’re not saying they have to play 162, nor that the playoffs can’t expand in the future even if this season is shortened. Because the league pulls in so much revenue from the postseason, players can hold this over the owners’ heads for a while yet.
Service time manipulation
The funniest part of this topic, at least to me, is how folks who agree with how the Cubs handled Kris Bryant’s situation try to say it’s not manipulation. Y’all need to learn how words work because “manipulation” does not, in and of itself, is not a synonym for “illegal.” Whether you agree with the practice or not, the Cubs very transparently opted to keep KB in the minors for a little less than two weeks in 2015 for the sole purpose of gaining an additional year of control. Which is to say they manipulated his time.
As for the legality of it, well, the law has both letter and spirit (like Medina, RIP). And given that parties in a contract are expected to act in good faith (which is foreign to most owners), blatantly threading loopholes like the service-time threshold is a gray area to say the least. Absent any clear way to curb the practice, both sides are seeking to incentivize calling up top prospects right away and keeping them on the roster.
The union has proposed granting a full year of service time to rookies who finish high enough in WAR for their position (top seven for IF and C; top 20 for OF, RP, SP), which feels like a tremendous misstep to me. The league has offered the potential for two draft picks within a player’s first two seasons for top-three finishes in Rookie of the Year, Cy Young, or MVP. Under those rules, the Cubs could have gotten two picks based on Bryant’s performance.
The MLBPA is reportedly amenable to the league’s proposal, perhaps with the inclusion of that cockamamie WAR business. I don’t object to WAR in general, but using that as the measure by which players are judged in this case is highly problematic and subject to the same sort of manipulation players are trying to avoid.
Minimum salaries, arbitration eligibility, pre-arb bonus pool
This one is a moving target because there are three topics feeding into one another like a human centipede. The union has adjusted its ask on both the salary floor and the bonus as it alters the percentage of players who’d be eligible for arbitration at two-plus years of service time. Basically, they want more money for pre-arb players as that group gets bigger.
MLB has proposed no change at all to arb eligibility, standing firm on the previous standard that the top 22% of players with more than two years of service — known as Super 2 — would be eligible. The union started out at 100% of those players, then backed down to 80% in a recent proposal, and has since come down to 75% as of this writing.
The result is that the union’s ask on the bonus pool for pre-arb players has shifted from $110 million to $100 million and now back up to $115 million. MLB is at just $20 million, up from $5 million at the start. The players have also asked for a $775K minimum salary that would increase by $30K per year to reach $895K by the end of the next CBA in 2026. The league has offered either a fixed $630K figure that teams could increase at their leisure or going from $615-$725K for players in their first three years.
Though it may seem as if the two sides are moving further apart on these numbers, the key is probably the percentage of players who hit arb eligibility early. Going to 50% with a $100 million bonus pool and a starting salary of $650-700K could get it done, but is that a loss for the players? It’s better than the current situation, so it’s really a matter of making sure they don’t get hosed elsewhere.
There’s a reason this topic wasn’t discussed Tuesday and that’s because it’s the biggest fish to fry. The league has already tried to soften the union’s request with the whole QO thing, which truly is good for players. However, increasing the CBT threshold by a mere 4% over 2021 while simultaneously making the penalties for exceeding it more strict just isn’t going to fly.
Perhaps because they’re so familiar with the process in their personal lives, owners are trying to pump sildenafil citrate into what has otherwise been something of a soft cap. Going to just $214 million in both 2022 and ’23 isn’t enough to account for inflation, so that alone is moving backward. The league also wants to increase the minimum penalties for exceeding that threshold to 50% of the first $20 million.
Those penalties would jump to 75% of any overage from $20-40 million and 100% for exceeding it by more than $40 million. MLB has also proposed that a team in the second penalty tier would forfeit its second-round pick in the next draft, while a team in the top penalty tier would lose its first pick.
The previous structure saw the penalties start at 20% and ramp up with each consecutive year of excess, so we’re talking about more than doubling the fines at the lower levels. What’s more, the penalty is at its max right in the first year instead of increasing over time. That’s effectively a hard cap, something a lot of folks mistakenly believe would be a good thing.
The most common misconception is that a salary cap creates more parity, which isn’t really the case at all and probably stems from some narrative that came out of the NFL. There’s also the notion that MLB should have a cap because other leagues do, though implementing a more rigid structure requires several other mechanisms to make it work. Absent a very high salary floor, among other things, putting a cap in place would not serve to spur teams on the low end to spend enough to make that hard limit mean anything.
Players have proposed moving the threshold to $245 million in 2022 and increasing it by $7 million each year thereafter, maxing out at $273 million in 2026. That’s a pretty wide gulf, one that doesn’t take into consideration those tougher penalties. Given that it’s such a big increase over last year, I could see something working if the league restructured its penalty scale.
Hell, just agreeing to those higher levels would eliminate all but two or three teams from the possibility of even facing a penalty in the first place. In the end, this and the pay for players in their first three years are the two matters that will decide this whole thing. Can the two sides reach an agreement this week that sees big leaguers back on the field in early March?
I’m more skeptical of that than ever at this point, mainly because the owners have already indicated more than once that they’re unwilling to budge on certain topics. I do wonder, though, whether enough of the owners who aren’t getting fat on revenue sharing will get antsy and start pushing for resolution. Wednesday may not bring much in the way of developments, but we’ll know what’s up one way or the other by this weekend.