MLB, MLBPA both benefit from COVID-19 agreement, but MiLB will suffer

Difficult decisions were necessary for Major League Baseball and the Players Association to hammer out a deal while working with so many unknowns in what is now, officially, a postponed regular season. If Jeff Passan’s reporting on the situation is any indication, then both parties made sacrifices, but came away with key measures that will help them weather a shortened, or even potentially fully canceled, 2020 regular season.

However, the parties not at the table are the ones that fared the worst: Minor League Baseball now looks like they’re in a position for MLB to force the disaffiliation of dozens of clubs on to them by way of coronavirus fallout, while current and potential MiLB players would then face a lack of both jobs and even opportunities to be signed.

Let’s end the vagueness and get to the details. MLB and the MLBPA prepared the portions of the deal that directly impact the two of them in ways that might seem a little confusing at first, but make sense once you know all of the context. The players agreed not to sue to be paid their guaranteed salaries should the 2020 season be canceled altogether, which seems like a massive give from their side. However, the MLB commissioner has the power to suspend the collective bargaining agreement and player contracts during a national emergency (from page 347 of the 2017-2021 CBA):

This contract is subject to federal or state legislation, regulations, executive or other official orders or other governmental action, now or hereafter in effect respecting military, naval, air or other governmental service, which may directly or indirectly affect the Player, Club or the League and subject also to the right of the Commissioner to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.

If the entire season were canceled, there’s a real good chance that those national emergency powers were ongoing, which in turn means Rob Manfred could have unilaterally decided not to pay the players for the season. This puts the players in a position where they have to negotiate an outcome for themselves rather than rely on MLB paying them, so they did: players received a guarantee that they will still accrue service time in 2020 even if the season isn’t played. So, Kris Bryant won’t have yet another year of waiting to be freed from his Cubs’ contract if the season is canceled; Mookie Betts would move on to free agency even if he never played a game for the Dodgers, etc.

In exchange, the players gave up the right to sue for their full contracts, and will instead settle for a $170 million payout to be divided among the major leaguers. If the season isn’t played, that’s all for pay in 2020: if the season is played, they will be paid on a prorated scale, minus the $170 million advanced to them by the teams during postponement. Considering that the season might not begin in June like MLB hopes it to, or that if it does, it would begin with empty stadiums and severely reduced local revenues for teams that aren’t the Marlins, getting anything guaranteed that involves money feels like a victory.

It’s all a pretty elegant solution, surprisingly so given the pressures and the unknowns. MLB doesn’t need to promise full salaries because of an agreement no one thought might ever need to be invoked at the scale it could be this year, and the players still came away with full service time promises and at least some form of paycheck to help them pay their bills this year. It’s also the only real good news out of the agreement:

Manfred has the discretion to shorten the 2020 draft to as few as five rounds, and it will be moved from June to sometime in July, sources said. Manfred also can delay the 2020 international signing period, which was supposed to run from July 2, 2020, through June 15, 2021, to at latest Jan. 1, 2021 through Dec. 15, 2021. MLB also has the right to shorten the 2021 draft to as few as 20 rounds and push back the next international signing period as well — though international free agency might well be gone by then, as the league plans to pursue an international draft at the conclusion of the current collective bargaining agreement, which runs out in December 2021.

A shorter draft and pushing back the international signing period means fewer minor-league players coming in to fill the rosters of the 160 affiliated clubs. The potential to shorten next year’s draft, too, while also being able to push the international signing period off forever with the knowledge that an international draft is a likely concession by the players during negotiations for the next CBA — negotiations in which the players have many needs that need to be met and only so much they can give up to get it — means this could be two years of intentionally shrinking the refreshing of minor-league rosters. Fewer minor leaguers means fewer teams are needed: MLB could combine their shortage of new blood with a pushing out of the old, severely reduce the size and scope of the minors in the process, and make it so that Minor League Baseball doesn’t even have to agree with MLB’s plan to shrink the minors in order for it to happen.

In short, MLB is able to leverage COVID-19 in order to achieve the goals they already had in mind. They’ve already wanted to shorten the draft, as Passan reminds, and now they’ll institute said shorter draft for maybe two years, while also maybe eliminating international free agency via delay. As everyone reading this knows, MLB has also been pushing to drastically reduce the size of the minors for a number of reasons for some time now. These proposals will help them accomplish those goals, and with the convenient excuse of being able to blame the pandemic for achieving what MLB was getting battered in the press for attempting. Some MiLB teams already believe they’re in trouble financially because of canceled games: MLB is happy to give them that last push over the edge rather than helping them persist, because persisting is not what MLB wants out of these clubs. At least, not all of them.

Notice, too, that no agreement has been worked out for minor-league pay as of yet, nor were any representatives for the players invited to these meetings. They have no seat at the table,, and MLB isn’t going to grant them one even during an unprecedented pandemic such as this one. No, MiLB is something that MLB doesn’t need to engage with on anything but their own terms, and with the MLBPA having plenty of their own valid concerns to contend with, there was never any other outcome for these talks than MLB ramming through their MiLB plans.

Down the road, MLB will point to coronavirus as the reason they got exactly what they wanted, but that will just be a deflection of the truth. In a pandemic, MLB found a way to weaken MiLB’s negotiating power, and they seized it while Congress is probably just a tad too busy with other COVID-related matters to intervene as they’ve been threatening to do.

  • Remember earlier this week when I was skeptical of the scope and intent of MLB’s plan to pay stadium workers during the postponement? UNITE HERE, the union that represents thousands and thousands of stadium workers around the country, is saying that those funds promised by MLB teams aren’t actually going to concessions and the like, just the full-time, direct employees of the stadiums. For Fenway Park, that means 1,300 concessioners aren’t getting a dime of assistance from the Red Sox, despite what all the headlines and PR suggest.

  • I’ll be writing more about this soon in one venue or another, of course.

  • One-third of Bergamo’s population attended this Champion’s League soccer match in mid-February, which the Associated Press reports is probably the reason why Bergamo has been hit so hard by the coronavirus.

  • It’s kind of something to see that the 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed to 2021, despite being run by the International Olympic Committee, a group so vile and corrupt they sometimes make FIFA seem tame and MLB look like amateurs in comparison. And yet, there are those in the United States acting as if life is going to be back to normal in a matter of a couple of weeks.

  • Obviously I am going to link you to David Roth on the Ricketts.