Be mindful of why you’re seeing leaks from MLB collective bargaining

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As more news of the ongoing collective bargaining between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association comes out, it’s important to remember that the news itself is part of the negotiation process. Leaks come out about salary negotiations and free agent discussions every winter with specific intent, not just so fans have something to pass the time with, and the talks between MLB and its players are no different.

A central part of two of my more recent Baseball Prospectus features touched on this: both were reactions to reported leaks from this year’s collective bargaining, and were I a betting man, I’d wager that both leaks came from MLB’s side. For one, the PA actively attempts to avoid leaks — remember just last year, when the PA only entered into the negotiation leaking game to put a stop to MLB’s tidal wave of negative info dumping? That’s how they operate, keeping the negotiations private as intended until they’re pushed to a point where doing so is no longer tactically sound. MLB, on the other hand, is constantly waging a public relations battle and thinking a number of moves ahead; ergo, they leak just enough to further whatever their goal happens to be. And second, both pieces of reporting assumed the reaction from the players’ side, without even an anonymous quote to go on. If one side isn’t talking, or isn’t giving you anything on the record, that’s what you’re going to have to do.

As I wrote at Baseball Prospectus in response to the MLB proposal that included a $100 million salary floor, MLB has reason to leak these sorts of economic proposals:

…if the goal is for MLB to be able to say, “Hey, don’t blame us, we proposed a salary floor and it was shot down,” as something of a cover, then they were able to easily accomplish their mission of being able to spend the next few years pointing fingers elsewhere, simply by proposing and leaking the existence of this proposal. Or setting themselves up to be able to mention this to the media whenever necessary should there be a lockout instead of the 2022 season beginning on time: that gun is loaded now, wherever it ends up being pointed.

…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.

A CBA that includes a salary floor isn’t likely to pass in a vote of MLB’s owners, but there is no harm in proposing one you know the players are going to reject. Especially when you can leak news of said proposal and make it look like it’s the players, not the owners, who are the ones acting as a barrier to economic change in the game — and economic change that, if you don’t think about it for too long, seems as if it would have an obvious benefit for the players and their stated goals of improving their take home and the rosters of teams that aren’t trying.

Similarly, the universal free agency age proposal, and the $1 billion pool of funds for spending on players that now would be considered arbitration-eligible, but in this new format, would be something else entirely since this system is meant to replace arbitration, are likely non-starters. Arbitration has been under attack by MLB’s owners essentially since it was instituted, and you hope that the Players Association learned its lesson decades ago when they allowed MLB to weaken the power of the arbitration process by making it take longer to reach arbitration eligibility. As I went into at BP, MLB’s owners hate arbitration because it is an economic lever they do not have control over, hence throwing out a number like “$1 billion” that looks astonishing in a headline, and will serve to make the players look greedy if they were to reject it. Even though it’s clear from looking at what little information has been leaked that there’s basically no chance the league would even come close to draining that pool of funds in this new system. Like with the whole “50 percent pay increase for minor-league players,” you have to look deeper than how good the headlines are going to look to understand how these systems are actually going to work, and what the benefits, if any, are.

I bring all of this up now because we’re in mid-September: the regular season is over in just a few more weeks, and the postseason will begin and end shortly after that. Then all we’ll have is about a month of collective bargaining news to go on, as the current agreement expires in early December. If that agreement expires without a new deal in place, well, you’re going to see more headlines about universal free agency and $1 billion spending pools and $100 million salary floors, especially from the corners of the sports media that were screaming at the players to just accept whatever deal was in front of them back in 2020. There will be new leaks, there will be public pressure on the union to back down from whatever stance they are quietly taking in negotiations. Keep all of this in mind as the leaks start to pool over the next couple of months, and be careful not to drown in them.

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