If forced to choose between arbitration and free agency proposals, MLBPA should pick arb

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I’ve been thinking and writing about the kinds of demands the MLB Players Association should be making of Major League Baseball in this round of collective bargaining for a few years now, so it should not be a surprise that I have some thoughts on the specific proposals we do have word of from the union’s side. There is a lockout because MLB seemingly wants no change unless it’s the kind that will further benefit the owners’ pockets, while the union is pushing to close off some of the loopholes exploited by those same owners over the duration of the previous CBA. Given this, there is the chance that, even if the PA holds strong and MLB lifts the lockout more because they blinked than because they crushed the union as they hope to, the union won’t get everything it wants — some proposals will need to be dropped, others prioritized.

Two that have received a bit of attention in these early days have been the desire to cut the time it takes to get to free agency from six years to five (with an age threshold component thrown in for players who debut much later and have already toiled within their initial contract for a long time) and cutting the amount of time it takes to reach arbitration eligibility. I don’t think it’s impossible that the PA gets both of these asks, in some form, but if you asked me to bet on it, I’d say MLB moves on one but not the other in order to try to limit the “damage.”. So let’s figure out which of them the union absolutely should not give up on, and why it’s the arbitration proposal.

The league wants neither, of course, and has already gone to great lengths to frame these proposals as being the end of competitive MLB as we know it. I analyzed all of Rob Manfred’s letter explaining the “need” for the lockout for Baseball Prospectus, where it is free to read, so I’m not going to relitigate that here, other than to say that “the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option” is some real bullshit. But it does tell you what MLB’s defense here looks like, in that they believe any change proposed by the MLBPA is going to cost you baseball, both in the short term as they fight over the need for these proposals to be accepted, and in the long term as MLB ceases to exist because players were able to choose where they play a little bit faster than they have in the past. So yes, the PA might be forced to choose one or the other of these two changes.

There are legitimate reasons for the PA to want both a shorter path to free agency and one to arbitration, but there is no contest here as to which it should be, from my perspective. A faster path to free agency would mean players get a chance to hit the open market sooner, yes, and it would help alleviate some service time manipulations concerns by making sure there was also an age component to things, but it’s not a setup that’s going to benefit every player, either: five years instead of six means more players would reach free agency, yes, but more players would be impacted by the quicker route to arbitration, and it would do a better job of rebalancing the pay scale, which has seen the median salary continue to drop to where it now sits, at $1.1 million. The average salary has dropped, too, but it still sits at $4.17 million, as its buoyed by the major free agent deals with average annual values that are now sometimes in the $40 million range.

Not only would making it take just two years instead of three to get to arbitration help more players make more money sooner, but it would do more to address the PA’s concern that teams aren’t trying as much as they could be, and that many teams receiving revenue-sharing are simply pocketing those dollars rather than spending them. As I wrote for Deadspin nearly three years ago now, the PA agreeing to move the arbitration eligibility threshold up from two years to three back in 1985 is essentially the starting point for much of what is wrong with the game’s economics today:

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.

Hitting reset on that by moving back to a two-year system, and trying to work toward closing off the loopholes it helped to open is arguably the most important thing the PA can do this winter in terms of an actual proposal. Today’s MLB leans incredibly heavily on pre-arbitration players, not just filling out the bench but lineups and rotations with pre-arb players, opening up holes to fill them with simply because the filler is going to be cheaper than paying to keep an arbitration-eligible veteran around.

This is not a new idea, looking at this infatuation with cheap — again, that Deadspin piece of mine is from three years ago, and Grant Brisbee wrote about “The Rise of Cheap” for SB Nation’s season preview for 2018, and we certainly weren’t the only ones who noticed how much MLB loved its least expensive players. But there is also some hard data to look at to show you just how serious the problem is: in 2019, over 63 percent of the players who took part in an MLB game that season were pre-arb, and they accounted for over half of all of the service time days accumulated that season, yet they were paid just under 10 percent of total player compensation.

When Rob Manfred says proposals like this would “threaten” MLB teams, what he really means is that they would threaten their ability to continue to exploit pre-arbitration players, whose low costs leaves teams free to pocket a much larger share of the revenues than they should be able to. And it’s for this reason that the PA should not move off of this demand for going back to two years of arbitration eligibility, no matter what. This is the key to everything: pair a faster path to arbitration up with a higher minimum salary, and suddenly players don’t need to be in such a rush to sign team-friendly extensions. They might still have to wait six years to become a free agent, but they’ll be better compensated in the lead up to that than they used to be, and even the players who are just going to be around for a few years will be in a better place, too. With pre-arb players not as available and not as cheap, non-star free agents might regain some of their appeal, too, which would make for a more organic method of fixing the problems with free agency, and maybe a more effective fix than anything that would have to be directly bargained for, too.

I certainly don’t think switching to five years before free agency is a bad idea, but to me, it might have more value as a bargaining chip than as an actually fought for proposal. Drop it at some point as a way to show MLB that the PA is willing to move on some issues, so that it’s the league who is even more obviously behaving the obstinate way they claim the PA is, and keep the focus on cutting off that extra year of eligibility for arbitration that never should have existed in the first place.

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