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With less than a month to go until the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement, we’re going to start seeing more and more updates on the nature of those talks. The latest report of note comes by way of Evan Drellich and Ken Rosenthal at The Athletic, as it discusses that the situation, as of right now, is the union awaiting an economic counter-proposal from the league’s owners, in response to the counter the Players Association sent out on October 29.
We still don’t have specifics to work with, in terms of just what is in the proposal — the league leaking details from their own economic proposal gave us some insight as to what they were looking for and why they were leaking details in the first place, but even there, concreteness was missing — but there is still plenty to glean from The Athletic’s reporting.
The players’ latest proposal is said to have only minor changes compared to the first. The adjustments were not immediately known, but the union viewed the league’s first proposal as a non-starter.
As previously reported, the union’s first proposal would have allowed players to become eligible for arbitration after two years, instead of three. The union in May also proposed a change to draft order, increases in the minimum salary, raises to the CBT thresholds, changes to revenue sharing between clubs, changes to the way service time is calculated, and bonuses for players who have yet to reach arbitration. Under certain circumstances, some players would be able to reach free agency sooner than six years, as well.
Drellich and Rosenthal also stated that the union viewed the league’s economic proposal “as a non-starter,” which is encouraging if you’re hoping that the PA is going to fight the owners here. As I wrote about in the multiple linked pieces above, MLB’s economic proposal is the kind that sounds good in a headline — it’s theater — and as preparation for an eventual public fight to try to break the union’s solidarity should the negotiations end up protracted. There’s no there there, however, and the union only slightly altering their initial proposal in response to MLB’s counter is a positive, if you’re someone like me who only wants a deal between the two sides reached if it’s one worth agreeing to.
As said, actual details are scarce, but let’s look at the little bit we do have. The most significant thing, from where I’m sitting, is the part of the proposal that reverts arbitration eligibility to something more closely resembling it’s pre-1985 form. Again, I don’t know the details of this particular arbitration proposal, but the ‘85 deal between the league and the PA was basically the first domino to fall that led to the union starting to take losses in negotiations. I wrote an entire feature out of that idea at Old Deadspin nearly three years ago now, but I’ll share the key bit here:
The owners gave up on every proposal they had put forward, which included a salary cap, save one: they secured that jump from two to three years of service time to begin arbitration eligibility. That one shift changed everything, as it allowed teams to spend the next three years colluding against free agents. Teams knew they had a sufficiently deep pool of inexpensive pre-arbitration players that they could either eschew free agents with altogether or get them to accept low-ball offers. This part probably sounds familiar.
The 1985 staredown was the first time that MLB’s owners decided to attack something other than the existence of free agency itself since the practice’s inception a decade before. Ownership had finally accepted that free agency existed, and turned instead to figuring out how to scale it back. By creating less of a need for free agents—and, of course, colluding against the free agents on the market—MLB succeeded in reducing player salaries at a time when the sport was seeing record revenues thanks to television deals. League revenues had tripled since the beginning of the decade, but that wasn’t enough for the owners. This part probably sounds familiar, too.
Agreeing to delay the start of arbitration eligibility created an influx of pre-arb talent that could be used to drive down prices and avoid more expensive free agents. The obsession with efficiency in the present day has essentially made this standard, accepted behavior — good business, even, despite it causing teams to cut proven commodities who have just become arbitration-eligible because clubs can call someone less expensive up to replace them. Reversing that trend will remove one of the tools ownership has utilized time and time again in the last 35 years; obviously, I don’t expect the league to be in favor of this, especially not when one facet of their last counter boiled down to, “hey let’s just get rid of arbitration, please don’t check our math.” Still, MLB not wanting it is no reason not to make it a demand. MLB doesn’t want a lot of things that are worth arguing in favor of.
The minimum salary increase is a necessity, too: I’ve been saying, for years now, that the minimum salary needs a big jump in addition to revamping arbitration eligibility, as well as service time. Free agency certainly cannot be fixed on its own, as MLB’s team-friendly economics are broken on just about every possible layer: it will take fixing everything else to make free agency make sense again, basically. And the PA’s proposals in this collective bargaining period seem to recognize that.
That being said, recognizing that fact and fighting for it are two different things. We won’t know how willing the Players Association is to let everything be shut down through an offseason freeze and/or lockout until they are presented with that ultimatum. The lack of movement in the economic portion of bargaining so far gives me some hope, as does the PA’s willingness to stand their ground before the 2020 season when MLB’s owners and favored media went all full court public press on the players in order to get the season begun on their dismal terms. I hate to end things with a “well, we’ll see,” but that’s how these things work. Either the PA will stand their ground and fight for significant changes, or they won’t. And it’s far too early to know which of those it’s going to be with any kind of legitimate confidence.
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