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With the question of how long the 2021 season is going to be now well behind the players, they can, as a unit, turn toward the concerns of the 2022 season, and beyond. The current collective bargaining agreement is in its final season, and we’ve already seen the kinds of concerns the management side is expected to focus on. Even before the pandemic, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said that they would not be making economic concessions in order to get labor peace, and team owners and executives spent 2020 leaking about how much a shortened regular season was going to impact their ability to address any of the changes players would be looking for in the next negotiations.
The playes have been a lot quieter about CBA-related items, but with the last spring training before the agreement expires kicking off, we’re starting to see some discussion of what the union might be interested in. SNY’s Andy Martino shared details from press conferences with Yankees’ pitchers Zack Britton and Gerrit Cole, both of whom are on the PA’s Executive Subcommittee, on the subject of labor-related concerns they have.
Britton “alluded to,” as Martino put it, a hope that there would not be a work stoppage because of negotiations, “We want to continue playing. Baseball has been doing very well.” Don’t read too much into that line, though: the two sides haven’t even really begun to talk about the next CBA in earnest, and you’re not going to see anyone from either side talking about wanting a work stoppage. Half the game for the owners is pretending they don’t want to lock the gates to force the players to submit to them, and while a work stoppage might be what’s necessary to achieve the players’ goals, they can’t appear giddy about the prospect even if, deep down, they might feel that way because they’re aware of what withholding their labor can win them.
No, the real focus here should be on what Britton and Cole, two of the eight members of the Executive Subcommittee, said about the idea of competition. For Britton, “…the biggest thing for players is creating more competition. We want to see more times [sic] out there creating good teams, and not concerned about draft picks. There’s a handful of organizations that aren’t putting a great product on the field. We would like to see all teams putting a good team out on the field and creating a more competitive league. That’s what fans want to see.”
Focusing on “what fans want to see” is a good plan for the players. This next CBA will be combative, and the owners will certainly — again — try to make it sound like the players are keeping baseball away from fans through greed. If the players can frame their issues of pay disparity alongside the idea that MLB’s teams aren’t putting their best product on the field, then they might have more fans in support of them. It’s not enough to just have MLB active, you know? The product has to be worth consuming, and a more competitive league with more teams trying to win is one way to ensure that. It also just so happens to coincide with the players being happier with their salaries.
Cole was more specific about the competitiveness issues in his own presser:
For me, it just goes back to competitiveness. We have a lot of great veterans who offer great entertainment — a quality style of baseball — that continuously are getting pushed out because the surplus value on younger players is too high. The analytics are driving the game in that direction. We want to have an open field for clubs to be able to find talent.
We have clubs that aren’t competing, that aren’t doing right by their fan bases. Clubs that win multiple World Series and then tear it all down. I worry that we’re losing generational fans. I worry that we’re doing fans in those cities a disservice.
Competitiveness is important. I would like to see the middle of divisions, middle of the league [be] incentivized to compete. And I would like to stop seeing teams who are competing penalized for competing.
I’ve said before that the players probably aren’t going to win the particular battle of making sure older players keep getting new jobs at the kinds of salaries the players envision them getting — free agency is not a problem that can be solved on its own, but is an interconnected one that requires multiple solutions in multiple spaces — but as a tactic that points out just how much teams are exploiting the gap between veterans and newcomers, the strategy might help them out.
Cole mentions the penalties for competing, which is about the luxury tax threshold, of course. It’s unclear just how the union is going to approach that topic — will they want a much higher threshold with larger jumps in its limit from year-to-year, or to try to remove it completely? Getting a salary floor installed would cost the union… something, I imagine, but the what of that is also unclear. It’s worth wondering if the threat of a salary floor might make the league more open to the idea of a much higher minimum salary, so that teams can still make decisions about their spending on their own, but can’t get away with an army of sub-$600,000 players, either.
All of that can be sorted out in this space another time, really. What matters is that we got our first real glimpse into what some of the elected union leadership thinks is vital to discuss. Focusing on competitiveness and the quality of the game itself, how much it can make and retain its fans and keep the whole league going for generations to come, is a solid play. It won’t stop the league from leaking that no, it is they who are the stewards of the game, or anything, but at least it’ll keep the players from being caught off-guard on the subject, like they were back when Bud Selig was appointing his Blue Ribbon committee at the turn of the century.
With any luck, we’ll have other players on the Executive Committee speaking up in press conferences soon, and maybe a coherent vision of what the union will be looking for will emerge.