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Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association met again on Tuesday, and if you were still, for some reason, holding out hope that this was all going to be wrapped up soon, allowing spring training to begin on time and, in turn, the regular season, well… you should probably stop doing that. I’m going to kind of bounce around a little today, so bear with me.
A whole bunch of reporters tweeted about the ending of Tuesday’s 90-minute session, but I’ll quote The Athletic’s Evan Drellich here because he described the feeling in of said discussions, too:
Today’s 90-minute meeting between MLB, MLBPA was heated. Some owners and players participated. The MLBPA made moves in two areas: service-time manipulation, and pre-arb bonus pool (dropped request from $105 million to $100 million). TBD when next core economics meeting will be.
It should not be a shock that things were heated, considering how the previous sessions ended, courtesy Susan Slusser:
I asked a source with knowledge of today’s bargaining session about perceived movement from MLB on talks and source said “I’d hesitate to call it movement. The players’ reaction to this universally was, ‘What the f-, are you kidding me?’
So of course the players getting their chance to react to a proposal that had them going, “What the fuck?” is going to end up heated. I don’t love the players giving up $5 million on their bonus pool idea, considering that, if it’s not a large enough pool, it won’t be able to perform its intended function, but just a $5 million drop won’t make much of a difference in that regard. Of larger concern, generally speaking, is if the league continues to give the players basically nothing, and the players keep dropping demands or moving on the ones they’re going to hold to. You can’t have this turn into a situation where the players are negotiating against themselves, but since last time around MLB accepted the idea of a pool at least conceptually, shaving $5 million off the top of the bonus pool in response isn’t that. It’s reiterating that the pool functions to give 30 exceptionally productive pre-arb players a healthy bonus that makes up for their unexceptional salary.
All of the “awarding extra service time for award-winners and honorees” stuff seems unnecessarily complicated, and I don’t love roping in the BBWAA the same way I don’t love leaning on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs for their wins above replacement statistics, the same way I don’t love the idea of using prospect lists to determine whether teams get extra draft picks or not. I do wish this had just been something simpler that put MLB teams in a much more obvious position of prioritizing trying to win or team control, like the idea of changing how many days constitutes a year of service to a figure that would make it far more difficult for teams to avoid calling up a clearly ready top prospect until they’re in the clear for a free seventh year of control.
As I wrote for Deadspin back in 2019:
Service time is easily exploited, and the incentives to do so are easy to see—FanGraphs’ explainer page on service time rules from 2011 is caught between praising the obvious efficiency of CBA exploitation and remorse at championing that notion. One full year of MLB service time is 172 days, and only 172 can be counted in a single year. So, 5.171—that is, five years and 171 service days—is a representation that a player is one day shy of six full years of service. That one day means the team has another entire season of that player at their disposal.
What constitutes a full year of service time has to change in these economic discussions, and change by enough that teams can get away with punting a few weeks to start the season. Even 150 days would change the equation, but it would be better to focus on an even lower number—at 125 or 100, say—while retaining the cap on days earned so that no player winds up earning nearly two service years over the course of one season. Teams won’t like this, but again, if free agency is going to be a dead end players will need to get paid somewhere. So let’s get those service clocks moving.
Involving the BBWAA and awards voting and honors takes things out of the hands of MLB and its teams, leaving a third party to blame when things don’t work out the way they’re expected to. And I’m not fully convinced it’ll curb service time manipulation, either, between all the service time and roster manipulation that can go into trying to keep these players from putting up the numbers that would earn them honors. MLB probably wouldn’t have gone for the plan to cut how many days of service equal a year, but that doesn’t mean it was the wrong play. Especially since there was wiggle room available both in how many days would inevitably equal a year, plus the option to grandfather in players who are already in the majors, or are already arb-eligible or whatever you want to do in that regard. And I think it would have served well for the next round of CBA bargaining, for 2027 and beyond, since, as said, teams would have had to be much clearer about their priorities in order to work under this kind of system.
Anyway, it’s clear that there’s a lot more work to be done, not just to agree but to even shape these policies into something workable. On Tuesday, Baseball Prospectus published my look at potential pitfalls in the top 30 pre-arb bonus pool proposal. You need a subscription to BP to read the whole thing, but I can give you a general idea here.
In short, this could give teams another reason to manipulate service time, so they don’t create any kind of value precedent for their talented young players that would carry over into future negotiations with them. Don’t want a player to be in the top 30 in wins above replacement come the end of the season? Be sure they don’t make it into April games, which was already the plan for far too many of these guys in order to secure an extra year of team control to begin with. Throw in that, without a high enough minimum salary, this looks like it could mostly serve to funnel more money into the hands of players who are going to get paid a lot of it in their careers, anyway, and it becomes pretty clear that the union is in a precarious place as far as achieving their stated goal of spreading the wealth around some more.
Now, as said in the feature itself, none of this is definite: things are still being negotiated, and the union can try to close these loopholes through bargaining before they fully open. That’s the reason to point it out now, though, so that these potential issues are identified before they become realized issues.