The MLBPA finally filed a grievance over 2020 season length

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For about a year now, the threat of a significant grievance has loomed over Major League Baseball. The Players Association first brought up a potential grievance against MLB back when the league was clearly failing to negotiate the 2020 season in good faith, delaying and delaying until there was no choice but to host an even shorter pandemic-impacted campaign. Then, in late-October, The Athletic’s Evan Drellich pointed out that the grievance against MLB for not scheduling as many games as they could have was still a real possibility, that it wasn’t just a tool used to get MLB to finally come to the table with serious offers prior to the 2020 season.

And now, we have word that the grievance has indeed been filed by the Players Association, thanks to the New York Post. The union is reportedly seeking around $500 million in damages from MLB, who, as you can imagine, is countering this grievance. As Joel Sherman points out, it’s an estimate of $500 million, in part because the PA didn’t specify how many games should have been scheduled: the math works out in a way where “around $500 million” means there should have been 20-25 more on the schedule, though.

The grievance is being fast-tracked at MLB’s request, per Sherman, which could still take months, but the fast tracking route means that we won’t be waiting a couple of years before an arbitration panel hears the sides out, like is the case for the PA’s current grievances against individual clubs for failure to spend revenue-sharing dollars, or player vs. team grievances over service time. With this being the case, the possibility exists that the union has filed this grievance now, rather than continuing to wield it as a threat, for a potential reason I mentioned back in November, after Drellich’s story: as a source of funding to help sustain the players during the lockout.

If the grievance was filed and heard relatively soon, as more of a priority case than, say, Kris Bryant’s grievance was, then the PA might have found a source of money during a potential 2022 lockout. Maybe not at the beginning of it, by any means — grievances take time to even head to an arbitrator, never mind the actual process and how long it takes for a payout to be sent — but depending on the length of the lockout itself, it could inject life into the players’ desire to continue to stand strong in the face of the owners’ demands.

The owners aren’t untouchable during a lockout, not when television deals aren’t going to pay out when there isn’t anything to air, as was the case at the delayed start of the 2020 season. The players need to get paid, too, but they have a strike fund and aren’t taking out loans to pay for renovations around the ballparks they play in, either. MLB owners could withstand a work stoppage for years and years if they wanted to dip into their own pockets to sustain the process, but these guys didn’t get ultra wealthy by spending their own money, you know? Once it comes to that, their spirits are usually broken and it’s time to talk.

So, if the timing of a grievance and its payout happen to work out where the players are getting a nine-figure infusion of cash they desperately need that they can split up among themselves, out of the already-hurting pockets of the owners who locked them out of playing in 2022? Yeah, that feels like the kind of scenario you’d want the owners to consider while they gripe about the current need to enter collective bargaining, and gripe within collective bargaining itself.

MLB is the one that requested this be fast-tracked, likely because they want to know what they owe the players, if anything, as they negotiate the next collective bargaining agreement, and then build that into their proposals and counters. The players filed when they did likely knowing that MLB would feel this way, and it has the side effect of possibly granting the players a source of funding during an extended lockout, or, at least, giving them a $500 million prize they’re supposed to collect on that they can then use in negotiations. It wouldn’t be the first time a collusion payout has been utilized to cut a deal that benefitted both sides: the Marlins and Rockies exist in part because of the funds MLB owed the players after the combined collusion settlement from the 1980s, per former MLB commissioner Fay Vincent.

When MLB would have to pay out is even more fuzzy than when a decision would be reached: it took years for the collusion settlement money to be “paid,” but those were also some weird circumstances, since it was a series of settlements that grew into a much larger collective payout, and they came from grievances that weren’t fast-tracked like this one. That’s why the theory on mid-lockout payout is only that: the timing might not work out, due either to the length of a potential lockout or because paying out isn’t a thing we can expect to happen for years, but either way, if the grievance is settled while the two sides are negotiating, the payout itself becomes a point of negotiation for the players.

The players do not lack for leverage, given they are in a position to withhold their labor from owners who have created something of a precarious economic system that requires taking on massive debts and constant payouts to minority owners whose presence balloons franchise values. But additional leverage like what a grievance payout could grant them would be welcome just the same, given we’re staring at what still feels like a very likely lockout, the most likely work stoppage since the last one in 1994.

Of course, the Players Association has to win this grievance, and that’s an entirely different discussion. It’s certainly not an impossibility, though, not when the PA can point to just how MLB spent months negotiating on points they had already agreed upon, while lobbing bad-faith attacks at the PA the whole time. It helps, too, that the 2020 season went off without a season-stopping hitch: right or not that there even was a 2020 season, the fact it was played mid-pandemic without anyone dying, or with no league-wide play stoppage, is likely to count in the favor of the PA’s argument that there could have been a longer season if only MLB didn’t purposefully hold up the works.

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