Major League Baseball and the MLBPA are, by all accounts, at an impasse when it comes to labor negotiations. Having successfully negotiated the parameters of the COVID season in early June, there was some hope that the spirit of good will and collaboration would carry through to what will soon be negotiations of immediate necessity. That hope is all but gone. Instead, both sides seem to be gearing up for a contentious winter battle.
Present-day circumstances — the most prominent among them being the recent situation surrounding the Marlins’ positive COVID tests — have served as a reminder that the climate surrounding the MLB’s labor negotiations is tepid, at best. Despite having signed off on playing the 2020 season, there are many players whose rhetoric suggests bitterness and hostility towards play. Right now, that climate that features a ton of ill omens and little reason for boundless optimism.
Now we REALLY get to see if MLB is going to put players health first. Remember when Manfred said players health was PARAMOUNT?! Part of the reason I’m at home right now is because players health wasn’t being put first. I can see that hasn’t changed.
— David Price (@DAVIDprice24) July 27, 2020
It should be noted that we have been here before, and recently. In 2016, players and owners only averted a work stoppage with an 11th-hour agreement that saw bitter compromise from both sides. In hindsight, elements of that compromise have become lightning rods for the current labor negotiations — chief among them, revenue share, service time issues, and luxury tax/salary thresholds. But labor negotiations tend to seem like a clown car careening towards a cliff, and are almost always stopped at the precipice. Still, we’ve seen examples from other sports of how deeply divided and embittered stances can result in self-destructive decisions.
It’s easy to see the rancor building among the players with regards to these issues. Frequent and blatant service time manipulation is an annual tradition of sorts for baseball lovers and deprives fans of full seasons from some of the most exciting players in the game. 2020 anomaly aside, the Blue Jays’ handling of super-prospect Vlad Guerrero Jr. in 2019 was a controversial example of just how egregious such actions have gotten. Service time circumnavigation has become so entrenched in the game that the Padres breaking camp with Fernando Tatis Jr. on their roster in 2019 was seen as a sort of miracle — when, in reality, Tatis had earned the spot (and continued to earn it) by showing off his burgeoning, dynamic skillset.
In no other major sport do we see clubs so blatantly and happily manipulate the roster and contract status of players in order to keep them under club control longer. It was a loophole in the 2016 CBA that players perhaps didn’t fully reckon with: in 2021, it will be a lightning rod. The bottom line is that we shouldn’t have players like Dylan Carlson, who earn their spots in camp, resigned to defeat and demotion. And GMs shouldn’t be put in the hilariously awkward position of manufacturing some kind of defect (usually a defensive one) in the player, as a veiled justification for keeping him down.
“Honestly, I’m disappointed. I know this is a business and it’s a decision that was out of my control. … I am confident my time will come and in the meantime, I’ll be down in Springfield doing everything in my power to stay ready.” — Dylan Carlson, OF https://t.co/WNsHE6XRjl
— Derrick S. Goold (@dgoold) July 23, 2020
The stratification between “competitive” and “rebuilding” teams has also reached peak levels in recent years, with fans, media, and players questioning the competitive balance that exists within the league. Although rebuild cycles are inherent to professional sports, in no other major league are they so stark, predictable, and tightly controlled. Some are advocating for the MLB to take the reins off of draft pick trading as part of the 2021 CBA; the irony therein is that doing so will likely only further exacerbate tanking and tiering, by allowing teams to offload players for picks rather than actual player assets. There’s some thought that the MLB may entice the players by moving towards an international draft system, which would be a welcome and transparent alternative to the current cloak-and-dagger of allocation money and backroom negotiations. After all, how cool would it have been to have Shohei Ohtani as part of the 2012 draft class, jostling with Carlos Correa and Byron Buxton for the top spot? An International Draft has been a bone of contention over the last few CBA cycles, and a move towards one only makes sense.
There’s also the matter of free agency itself, which has been a climate of uncertainty in recent years. The Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sagas in 2018-19 showed that the stubborn rigidity of ownership, coupled with a pool of interested teams that gets cut-down according to rebuilding cycles, can freeze-out top-end talent.
Still, it would be entirely fair for owners to point to the enormous salaries given out in recent years as example that players compensation is healthy. In the past two years alone, we have seen six of the ten largest contracts in North American sports history, given to baseball players (Harper, Machado, Mike Trout, Nolan Arenado, Gerrit Cole, Mookie Betts). To say that the players are coming out of contract negotiations wearing the pauper hats is simply not the case. Baseball players are regularly the most well-compensated athletes on the planet.
And really, that’s why sports labor negotiations are such a faux pas to the general public. It can feel very much like it is billionaires battling millionaires over the money of people (like you and I) who make significantly less. PR campaigns and subtle manipulation of the language surrounding labor talks can sometimes work in getting the public on your side, but it’s a mug’s game. The public is never truly “on anyone’s side” when it comes to these things. Perspective can be a difficult thing for the general public to have when it comes to professional athletes. We generally don’t care what percentage of the pie goes to whom — we just want them to eat it in private.
Expect the rhetoric surrounding the forthcoming labor negotiations to be ratcheted up in the coming weeks and months. The players know that, compensation aside, they were largely the losing party — in hindsight — coming out of the 2016 agreement. Having put the long-term health — not to mention their mental and emotional health- – on the line in order to play an abbreviated COVID season gives them a real bullet in the chamber. We’ll have to see which target they fire it at when labor chatter heats up come the new year.
Featured Image by Alyssa Buckter – alyssabuckter.com