The long winter of baseball's latest labor war
With the two sides ratcheting up the contention, it's looking likely we're going to lose some spring training games. Which means we are edging closer to the season not starting on time.
Back for another week of lockout baseball, where Royals news (and news for every other club) exists in a vacuum. The anticipation of spring, which should be building at this very moment, is nonexistent.
This edition of the newsletter is going to focus only on the labor issues at hand. Kind of has to at this point, doesn’t it?
Anyway, this newsletter is usually about the Royals, so if you haven’t, won’t you consider clicking the subscribe button to have this in your inbox on the mornings it publishes? It’s free! And don’t worry, more Royals content will be coming later this week. We have spring training to prepare for!
When the owners fired the first post-CBA expiration salvo and locked out the players, it was not an unexpected move. MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred said they would do it. And they did.
When that happened, it was a good time to remember that labor negotiations—not just in baseball, but in all collective bargaining—tend to become powered by deadlines. The fact that the two sides barely discussed anything in December was not surprising in the least. The holidays and the fact there were at least two months ahead meant that the sides were never going to come together at the table for anything serious.
As the calendar flipped to 2022 and January wound down, it became a little more concerning that there seemed to be a lack of movement, but still…time. It made sense to figure that things would pick up pace around the end of the month or in very early February. Camps are scheduled to open around the middle of the month, so if an agreement could be hammered out in the first week or so of February, it would still provide time for those camps to move forward generally on schedule. Sure, there would be a flurry of activity post-lockout, with teams signing the remaining free agents and some general managers getting back into their wheeling and dealing groove with some trades, but overall, a settlement in early February would mean baseball could head into spring with a business as usual approach.
And now here we are.
There’s still time to get that deal, but the bad blood between the two sides seems to be at a boiling point. The latest was last week, when the owners didn’t deliver on a promised counter-proposal and instead requested federal mediation. Federal mediation is often a step that comes when negotiations stall, but both sides have made a true effort to reach an agreement. A mediator is an independent negotiator, someone without skin in the game. They would conceivably work with both sides, informing where demands may be unreasonable, and finding common ground to work toward a solution.
It’s not a surprise the MLBPA rejected the owners’ request.
I’m not sure what the owners are going for in this case, and I’m not certain they themselves know. Pulling a rope-a-dope move in promising a counter-proposal and then asking for help is a move that reeks of a public relations ploy. We’ll show we really want this by asking for federal help! Except that was always destined to fail. There was no way the players were going to accept.
Remember, the owners didn’t need to lock the players out at the start of December. They could have continued to negotiate. Had the sides not reached an agreement in this scenario, the owners could have locked the players out this week, just ahead of the opening of camp. Instead, we got some song and dance from commissioner Rob Manfred about how the lockout would speed negotiations. Manfred has negotiated too many CBAs. He may not like baseball, but he’s not stupid when it comes to labor negotiations. He knew exactly what would happen.
Reports are, the owners will meet in the middle of the week in Orlando to regroup and decide on their next move. Perhaps that promised counterproposal will finally materialize.
I was asked this question on Twitter and, two-plus months into the lockout, it seems like a good time to revisit the core issues that are being negotiated.
It’s always about the money
The players are looking for more money for players with less than three years of major league service time. In other words, they are aiming for a raise in the league-minimum salary (it was $570,500 last year), and some kind of escalators built in to pay players in their second and third years in the majors. There are a couple of things going on with this point.
1) Most production in baseball comes from players under 30, those who are tied to their teams as either pre-arbitration or arbitration-eligible. According to FiveThirtyEight, in 2021 players under 30 produced 63 percent of all WAR, while they collected just 38 percent of the total salary paid. Young players are bargains, and owners love nothing more than a good bargain.
2) Overall, league-wide payroll has dropped. According to the Associated Press, it was down 4.8 percent in 2021, compared to 2019. This is the glow from the Moneyball shine. The analytical revolution in front offices across baseball means that teams realize that paying for past production is…a thing of the past.
So the young players are still tied to their clubs, with their salaries favorable to ownership for the first three-plus years, finally reaching the free market after six full years in the majors. That’s not changed. But the analytic movement has made the front offices smarter and they have curtailed their spending on players past their prime. The net result is that while revenues are booming across the game, only one party has realized the full benefit…the owners. The players have seen their slice of the pie shrink.
Please win, baby
Fueled somewhat by the Royals, but more by the Cubs and the Astros, tanking has become a legitimate blueprint to presumably build for contention. We all know Dayton Moore well enough to know he never legitimately tanked when the team stripped down ahead of 2011, but after a couple of misguided forays into the free agent markets, that’s what they did. The Cubs with Theo Epstein in charge and the Astros with Jeff Luhnow were much more aggressive—and unabashed—with their scorched baseball to the postseason philosophies.
Success breeds imitation, especially in baseball. This method of building a team has constricted the market for player movement and yes, salaries. Now, we’re seeing more 100-loss teams than ever. We’re also seeing more 100-win teams. The middle class in baseball barely exists between the two extremes.
The players will refuse a salary floor (a mandate that each team needs to spend at least $X per year) because that will ultimately dovetail into a salary ceiling…or cap. The MLBPA will never go for a salary cap. The solution seems to be somewhere in the distribution of draft picks or other penalties for clubs that are clearly refusing to compete.
The players would like the loosening of the restrictions that come with the competitive balance tax. That would probably just unleash the larger market teams even more. Meanwhile, the owners would like to expand the playoffs, using smoke and mirrors in giving more teams a chance at the piece of metal.
So now where are we?
After losing some ground in the last couple of CBA’s the players are not wanting to give more in this latest round of bargaining. The consensus is the MLBPA gave up quite a bit in previous deals, and there’s simply no way they can recover all that in one round. They will have to find their victories where they can. They have already moved off their initial proposal of amending the time it takes for a player to reach free agency. They will probably need to move a little more.
The owners meanwhile, seem to be…posturing. The latest stunt asking for mediation sniffs of confusion in their own ranks. Is there a plan other than to attempt to turn public opinion against the players? Difficult to say.
The players are having none of it.
MLBPA Communications @MLBPA_NewsStatement from the Major League Baseball Players Association: https://t.co/KBssy2e66U
Then there is this…
There have been rotten baseball commissioners through the years, but I’m hard-pressed to think of one more seemingly hellbent on creating a trail of disruption like Manfred. The man has been a disaster since day one and seems to be focused on outdoing himself in the arena every single day he’s on the job. From his disastrous negotiations for the shortened 2020 season to his dealings with the minor leagues to his handling of the Astros cheating to some truly absurd rules changes, his tenure as commissioner has been a disaster. Truly.
The owners probably adore him.
The optimism that a deal could get done without a delay in the opening of camps or the loss of spring training games is quickly fading. With the sides so far apart and no date for the resumption of negotiations, the delay in the opening of spring training camps is virtually assured. I’d also pencil in the first week of the exhibition slate as being in danger. And when that happens, we will be veering dangerously into the probability that the season will not start on time.