After six weeks of nothing in the ongoing saga of Major League Baseball’s unsettled labor situation, the bargaining committees from the MLB owners and the MLB Players Association will finally sit down for what is supposed to be the first real meeting since the owners imposed a player lockout Dec. 2.
Multiple reports said a video meeting is scheduled for Thursday though no official announcement has been made.
Let’s hope the duration of this meeting is longer than the seven-minute session that took place in Dallas on Dec. 1, just hours before the collective bargaining agreement between both sides expired.
The lack of effort put forth by either side over the past 40-plus days has generated frustration and fatigue for fans, who are now dealing with a widespread surge of a new COVID-19 variant and the subsequent fallout, treacherous and extreme winter weather conditions and increased inflation on daily costs.
They don’t want to hear about bickering negotiations or who is right or wrong. They simply want the offseason to resume, their teams to get better, spring training to proceed as planned and the regular season to start on time without games being missed.
But will they get it?
The absence of activity since the lockout started doesn’t mean that an agreement can’t or won’t be reached in time to not disrupt the baseball calendar.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a set deadline to reach an agreement. An artificial deadline of around Feb. 1 for something to get settled would allow teams and free agents to resume the paused offseason about two weeks before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to report.
Given the pugilistic disconnect between both sides, highlighted by the COVID negotiations the last two seasons, multiple baseball sources believed that getting something done by Feb. 1 would’ve required this process to start before the holidays.
Instead, there is a feeling that days and time have been wasted seemingly indifferent to the ramifications of their inactivity.
Perhaps Thursday’s meeting, where owners are supposed to submit a proposal addressing key economic issues like minimum player salary, the competitive balance tax threshold and tanking among multiple teams, will offer a possible timeline to an agreement.
Based on past behavior, the details and reactions of the meeting will be leaked to certain media outlets to offer some disclosure — through each side’s perspective — and allow for public posturing.
Until then, here’s a quick refresher of the arguments from each side:
What the MLB owners want
The owners and by extension commissioner Rob Manfred don’t want much to change in terms of economic structure. Well, they would love a defined salary cap, but they know it’s a non-starter.
It’s why players’ service time structure, salary arbitration and free agency are not part of Thursday’s proposal. They don’t want to do anything that would lead to talented players becoming free agents earlier. They want to maintain their three years of club control, where players make a minimum salary and three years of salary arbitration before free agency.
The recent offseason signing frenzy aside, MLB owners and general managers have gotten smarter and thriftier in doling out free agent contracts, particularly to players in their mid-30s.
Teams spent a combined total of $4.05 billion on contracts in 2021, which is down considerably from the $6-plus billion spent in 2017. The average MLB salary was just over $4 million in 2021, which is also down more than 15% from 2019.
Owners would love to see a decrease to the competitive balance tax (CBT) threshold of $210 million but will settle for an incremental increase. Any team exceeding the CBT in salary is taxed a percentage and subject to draft pick penalties. The fear from some owners is that a large increase to the CBT would benefit the big market teams while punishing teams that have payroll limitations.
MLB also wants to expand the playoffs to 14 teams to capitalize on the television revenues. The format would include the three division winners and four wild card clubs in each league. The team with the best record in each league would receive a first-round bye, while the remaining six teams would participate in three-game wild card series to advance.
Manfred and the owners believe an increased field would lead to fewer teams embarking on lengthy rebuilds where putting a competitive product on the field is secondary to cost saving and prospect accumulation.
What the MLB Players Association wants
With accumulated data used by owners, which shows how rapidly most players’ performances decline after age 32, the players would like to see a team’s club control reduced by a year so they can reach free agency at an earlier age to maximize earning potential.
The structure of a player’s service time accrual has been much debated with teams like the Cubs, White Sox and Mariners exploiting loopholes in the system and delaying MLB debuts to prolong their club control by additional seasons.
While increasing the minimum salary from more than $550,000 to more than $750,000 is reachable goal, the players would prefer to see the three years of team control reduced and arbitration start in a player’s third season.
Another ask is the addition of a performance pool of dollars for players making the minimum. It’s a way of rewarding rookies and players making the minimum for production well above their pay.
The players are not opposed to an expanded playoff but would like it to be set at 12 teams with typical postseason revenue sharing.
The players would also like to see less revenue sharing of the overall pool of money generated in a season between teams, believing it allows some teams not spend to win or face ramifications for lack of revenue generated by fielding subpar teams. Implementation of a payroll minimum is an unrealistic ask from the union.
In 2019, Forbes estimated MLB earned $10.9 billion in revenues with nine teams with payrolls less than $110 million.
What else is at stake
The current structure of the MLB draft and the possibility of instituting a lottery instead of guaranteed picks based on record is on the table. Also a world draft of international players, scrapping the current signing system that has teams scouting 14-year-olds, has been discussed.
The universal designated hitter is something that teams and players both want to see happen. They believe it would lead to increased offense and offer a roster spot for veteran players. But a year ago, owners used it as a bargaining tool for expanding the playoffs to 14 teams and players balked at the power play.
Changes to on-field rules seem to have moved out of the discussions but could be added as sweeteners for either side. Changes like implementing a pitch clock, banning infield shifts or a universal baseball for all levels were once thought to be part of the talks. But Manfred can institute some of those without union consent.