On the proposed MLB salary floor and messaging

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Surprised that MLB’s owners proposed a salary floor all on their own during the current collective bargaining sessions with the Players Association? I was a little taken aback, too, but as I wrote on Friday for Baseball Prospectus, just because the owners proposed a salary floor doesn’t mean they actually want one. What they do want is for you — fans, media, etc. — to believe that they do want one, and that it’s necessary. Which it is, of course, but not in the way MLB is proposing.

Look no further than the followup editorial on the news by Ken Rosenthal, one of the journalists that initially reported the salary floor news last week. I’m not saying Rosenthal did anything severely, egregiously wrong with this editorial, necessarily, but it positioned a salary floor as a necessity to help keep abject disasters like the 2021 Orioles from happening in the future, mentioned the players would likely be against the current salary floor proposal, but didn’t spend much time going over why. “The owners proposed a salary floor but the players didn’t want it” is exactly the kind of messaging the owners are hoping for out of this whole leaked proposal. And Rosenthal’s first post-reporting piece has a soft version of that messaging, which is the kind of thing we will surely see mentioned later on once the owners decide to go gloves off and start providing leaks that paint the players as greedy, once negotiations get a little more tense than they are now. As I said at BP last week:

Any salary floor system that could actually benefit the players would likely be shut down by the owners who are very aware of how much money not spending money makes them. And the new CBA would need to be ratified by both sides to go into effect: if one side seems like an impossibility for ratification on a CBA including a salary floor, then proposing it is pretty harmless when it can be utilized in other ways later on in the talks. Maybe I’m being a little paranoid, but consider for a moment that this is the first real substantial leak on the otherwise near-silent CBA talks to this point, besides an earlier acknowledgment that the talks had begun at all. There’s likely a reason for that, and it’s probably not in order to establish a salary floor.

This is all meant to be less, “How could you, Ken?!” and more “Please think about the way in which you say things, people in the media whose work helps to set messaging, intentionally or not.” MLB does need anti-tanking measures, for sure, and the 2021 Orioles were an inevitability once Jeff Luhnow protege Mike Elias took over as general manager and started clearing house. At least the 2018 Orioles weren’t supposed to be historically bad and just kind of ended up that way when literally everything went wrong. The clubs since have all been this way on purpose, and as Rosenthal details, it doesn’t look as if this is actually leading to any kind of improved future, either. But hey, at least the Orioles are both bad and inexpensive! I’m sure everyone with a financial investment in the team is pleased with their checks from all of the parts of the MLB revenue experience that are detached from the results on the field, and that’s what matters.

A salary floor would be great, but MLB opening up discussion of a salary floor by trying to lower the luxury tax threshold tells you exactly how serious they are about implementing one. It’s a shame, too, because a salary floor — from the perspective of the owners and not someone like me who thinks all the caps on everything should be done away with — would be a good way to increase overall spending and bring up the level of competition without forcing most teams to change their behavior even a little. Seven teams are currently under the $100 million threshold MLB proposed. Just seven, out of 30, and those seven teams are making everyone else look worse by association. If anything, the Steinbrenners and the other biggest-spending owners should be frothing at the mouth demanding that Baltimore and Cleveland and so on spend at least $100 million instead of just cashing revenue-sharing checks and pretending that they’re using them on player development and other vague items they don’t need to report on unless they end up in arbitration after the PA files a grievance against them.

The owners are maybe too well-unified after decades under the care of former commissioner Bud Selig, however, so they’re disciplined enough under current commission Rob Manfred to not make the mistake of showing the kind of disunity that torpedoed them in collective bargaining again and again in the past. Even if implementing a salary floor — and without lowering the luxury tax threshold in the process — would be beneficial to MLB as a concession to the players that helps relieve some of the various pressures, internal and external, on the game’s twisted economics, it’s just not going to happen that way. MLB’s owners are quieter about it, but they’re like the owners of old in that they believe all of this belongs to them and only them. They’re emboldened by decades of victories against the PA ever since Selig figured out the secret sauce around the turn of the century, and they won’t behave any differently until after they’ve been stunned into change somehow.

So we’ll see where things go, but I have a hard time thinking the owners feel they need to relieve some pressure here. They increased minor-league pay for 2021 because of all of the public pressure and awareness of the horrid conditions on the farm, but they did so while also gutting Minor League Baseball after staging a hostile takeover of the organization, and increased pay in a way that looked better in a headline than on a bank balance, to boot. Leaking that they’re considering a salary floor proposal makes them look like they’re actively engaged on the topic of improving MLB’s economics, but in a similar fashion to the minor-league pay thing, I don’t place much faith in them being actually concerned with much more than improving optics. Like I said: think about how you write about and talk about MLB’s plans during collective bargaining, because any leak that is reported on was leaked for a reason, and we’d all be better off if we considered what that reason actually is.

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