The MLBPA’s Moral Obligation to the Future of Baseball

There's a difference between a legal and moral obligation, but one isn't possible without the other.

On March 26, MLB and the MLBPA came to terms on a deal that clarified key items of concern for a season delayed by COVID-19. From those negotiations also came temporary rules that—for now—will last for two years, regarding how teams will acquire amateur and international talent. The details of the pact are outlined by Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich at The Athletic, Jeff Passan at ESPN,  and Eric Longenhagen at FanGraphs. The Athletic’s duo determined that “there could be no winners in this deal, only losers…each side had to choose its priorities.” Here are the most critical details to know for how major leaguers are impacted:

  • Players will get service time credit for the 2020 season, even if the entire season is canceled (meaning, for example, Mookie Betts is slated to be a free agent, no matter what)
  • If there is no season, service time for 2020 will be equal to service time accrued on the 40-man roster or injured list in 2019
  • Players will receive a collective $170 million payout over two months
  • Payouts are tiered into segments of $275/day, $500/day, and $1,000/day; remaining money is evenly split between veteran players on high-dollar contracts
  • Players can opt out of these daily payment amounts over the two month period, leaving a larger pool for others
  • In a shortened season, arbitration-eligible players would go through an adjusted process that would not dock them for having played in fewer games.

The security that current members of the MLBPA get in this deal is two-fold. They’re getting income in some capacity and that, in and of itself, can serve as stable ground amidst an unstable landscape. That’s invaluable. The rights of players fortunate enough to be approaching free agency also aren’t being held by clubs any longer than the six-plus years mandated by the collective bargaining agreement. This is enormous. These are players who may never be more valuable to teams and they’ve earned the right to test the market as soon as possible.

But consider the key details for amateurs:

  • Major League Baseball can push the July 2 signing period to open in January 2021, and the following J2 period another six months (which means it would happen in 2022).
  • Major League Baseball has the right to trim the amateur draft from 40 rounds to five in 2020, and from 40 rounds to 20 in 2021
  • Signing bonuses for amateurs will remain at the same levels for the next two years, instead of increasing the typical ~three percent each year
  • Bonuses will be deferred; players will receive up to $100,000 upfront and then the rest in equal payments over the next two years
  • Any player drafted after the fifth round will be capped at a bonus of $20,000

This is where things get murky. These details underscore a burgeoning issue in baseball: The rights of minor leaguers and amateurs are being used as trade chips by the MLBPA to get more favorable conditions for current major leaguers. The issue almost always circles back to the fact that the MLBPA does not have a legal obligation to bargain on behalf of minor league or amateur players, regardless of whether one believes that the MLBPA has a moral obligation to do so.

These terms can become slick fast, but they do have actual meanings. A legal obligation is a duty that a court can enforce. It’s a legal responsibility to carry out the law, like having 60 days to pay a fine after receiving a speeding ticket. It’s concrete, written, and agreed upon by people who can put its enforcement into motion. A moral obligation is a duty someone should perform, but to which they aren’t legally bound, like holding the door open for someone at a convenience store. It might put good in the world, but you’re not facing consequences in the justice system if you choose not to do it.

 

The Thick of the Matter

 

There are select quotes from players in Rosenthal and Drellich’s reporting that squarely frame the MLBPA’s commitment to its legal obligation. They focus first and foremost on service time. Andrew Miller, reliever for the St. Louis Cardinals and an executive member of the Players Association, said, “a generation of players will not be held back due to service time implications resulting from a partial season or in the unfortunate event of a canceled season.” In processing this deal between the league and the MLBPA, it’s hard not to read this quote and process how casually “a generation of players” regards its own exclusivity. By and large, the deal appears to be a good one for current major leaguers—for baseball players who have already ostensibly made it. Even the minimum salary for rookies—$555,000 in 2019—is still multiples more than what a top-of-the-line veteran minor leaguer can make.

Another player representative stated that “the ripple effects [of service time credit] are ‘almost incalculable.'” That’s probably true. This agreement will enable players to continue earning on the trajectory they were on before a pandemic broke out. The commissioner’s office did have the option to withhold player salaries because of a national emergency, and money lost during a time like this for workers—or during a holdout—is almost certain to be money that they cannot make back. They just get to resume making money when they start work again. Avoiding that circumstance is an exponential win for current major leaguers.

It’s quite the opposite for amateurs, though, and only because happenstance has dictated that they fall outside of the current legal obligation for the MLBPA. After the 10th round, you’ll see a lot of players out of the draft sign for $125,000, because that’s the highest amount a team can offer them without it counting toward the team’s predetermined overall bonus pool. It’s a good deal for everyone. The player gets a non-negligible amount of money that shows a decent commitment to them, while the team retains the ability to add as many talented players as possible.

Now, under the agreement struck on March 26, even early-round talents will only get 80% of that total upfront. And players who would’ve signed for that $125,000 are now capped at less than 20% total of what they stood to make even two months ago. Bunches of American players will go from earning enough to support themselves and live on their own to performing the tightrope act that is living on a troubling minor-league salary. More will go back to school, and others might miss out entirely on an opportunity to prove themselves as major league-caliber talents.

Meanwhile, international players will have to wait another six months to receive money that could change their lives and the lives of their families. While players aren’t allowed to sign until they’re 16 years old, the majority of J2 deals we’d learn about this summer have already been agreed to, and in some cases for two or three years. That’s because MLB has basically told teams it won’t enforce its own rules. And as Longenhagen notes, this part of the agreement “proactively shift[s] international talent acquisition timelines in ways that…will grease the logistical wheels for an eventual [international] draft,” which would again cap the earning potential of those players.

If the benefits for current major leaguers getting credit for service time lost during a shortened or canceled season are “almost incalculable,” then so are the limits on earnings for every single amateur player as long as these rules are in effect. It’s also immediate. Amateur talent has always been the cheapest kind for a team to acquire and build with, and now it’s gotten even cheaper, under the semi-guise of a pandemic response.

 

The Bottom Line

 

The MLBPA faces no legal recourse for failing to make decisions on behalf of amateurs that would better secure the future of the game or player rights. Many players regard the game as a meritocracy: if you’ve earned your way there, you belong. If you haven’t earned your way there, then your problems are not their problems. But in a union setting, such a rigid scope undercuts the power available in numbers as well as the continued existence and health of the body. It also serves as a reference point for other entities that negotiate with (or against) a union.

The bottom line is that a legal obligation will never exist for a group if they don’t first engage a moral one. This is how women and people of color got the right to vote, how Americans with disabilities got the right to reasonable accommodations in workplaces and schools, and how students with special needs got the right to equal education, among countless other examples. Major league ballplayers certainly represent less urgent matters, but that shouldn’t restrict them from holding open the proverbial door for future generations.

 

Featured Image by Alyssa Buckter – alyssabuckter.com

Tim Jackson

Tim Jackson is a writer and educator who loves pitching duels. Find him Going Deep for PitcherList and on Twitter @_TimJackson.

  • Avatar Curveball says:

    It would be nice if instead of licensed franchises there would be open competition instead of centrally managed cartels, but that ain’t happening. (American sports leagues are more ‘socialist’ than their European counterparts with drafts and other restrictive practices and such.)

    It would work in a counterintuitive way if MLBPA would try to negotiate collectively for players they do not represent. It isn’t happening and never should to. (Fiduciary duties and/or common good have their limits.)

    If MLB and MLBPA create an environment that doesn’t work, not talking about legal exemptions based on statutes or precedents here, it’s a duty for competition and/or audience to hold them accountable and honest.

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