Bargaining isn’t always about midpoints

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​I understand the impulse to think that collective bargaining is always a series of back-and-forth movements from your position, until you end up in a midpoint that neither side is satisfied with. “That’s how you know it’s a good deal,” people will say. That can be true, sure, but it is not a hard-and-fast rule. Sometimes two sides are asking for two very different things, and simply cutting the baby in half isn’t a solution.

Take the pre-arbitration bonus pool proposals between MLB and the Players Association, for instance. MLB is not opposed to the existence of a pre-arb pool, but they are completely against the specific instance of it that the union is pushing for. The owners want a small central fund that all 30 teams would plop what does not amount to much more than a league-minimum salary into, and then those funds would be dispersed 30 ways among the top pre-arb players. The owners don’t want to give the players anything, not really, but if it costs all of $20 million in 2022 to keep anyone from being able to say the owners haven’t moved on anything, well, that’s $20 million well spent, since it could save them far more than $20 million elsewhere if public pressure turns on the players.

The players, on the other hand, wanted to use the pre-arbitration bonus pool as a way for qualifying players to get a hefty pay day they would not see otherwise. The original intent was to get a significant bonus to 30 players — like, multiple millions of dollars each significant, as $115 million divided by 30 gets you $3.83 million — but it has since switched its focus over to less money per player, but far more players. Now, $115 million would be split 150 ways — that’s just $767K per player, which is only “just” in relation to $3.83 million. It’s making it so the owners aren’t necessarily losing all leverage in pre-arb extension negotiations with players thanks to a multi-million dollar bonus, but it’s in return ensuring that far more players get a bonus that is equal to (or maybe greater than, depending on where things land on that proposal) than their league-minimum salary.

This is not likely something where the owners will keep giving $5 million more while the players will ask for $5 million less, until the owners end up paying more than they want to into this fund while the players get less than they want. The players might be disappointed but ultimately satisfied with, say, $68 million split 75 ways, since that would mean over $900,000 in bonus money per qualifying player, but again, the owners need to be convinced that this is even the correct purpose of the system. That figure is about half of what the players are asking for, and over three times what the owners have recently proposed: it’s also nearly seven times what they initially proposed on the matter.

The number of players getting a bonus isn’t really the concern of the owners at the kind of money the players are asking for as of their most recent proposal on the subject. It’s the total dollars. They don’t want to spend much, so they’ll keep bumping this up $5 million at a time to say they’ve done something, even though they have not. A $5 million bump in the proposal is an extra $167K chipped in per team. That might be a lot of money when it comes to the annual salaries of the people reading this, but it’s effectively pocket change for billionaires in an industry that pulled in nearly $11 billion in its last full season we have the data for. That $20 million they’re offering might also be the end of MLB’s movement on the issue, since the next $5 million bump would mean a figure loftier than even the highest tier of MLB’s minimum salary proposals, and getting up to $30 million would mean $1 million per qualifying player. I’d say they might switch things to get more players less money per player rather than adding new money on as some for-show movement, but I imagine that MLB wants to keep this like everything else on the economic side, and ensure that a small number of players are the ones actually making legitimate money off of the sport.

The players, to their credit, are sticking with their most recent pre-arb pool proposal as of Tuesday’s bargaining session. They did make a change to their Super Two proposal from last week, changing the figure of eligibles from the top 80 percent of service time accumulators to the top 75 percent, but they balanced that out by making their minimum salary proposal go up by $30,000 per year instead of $25,000 per year, with 2022’s $775,000 figure staying the same. I’m curious to see how MLB reacts to the union also playing a game of barely moving the needle because they’re satisfied their side is in the right. Probably poorly, but we’ll know for sure later on Wednesday.

Anyway, the point of all of this is to remind you that it’s not always as simple as finding the midpoint and slowly getting there. The players aren’t likely to budge on the minimum salary proposals by much, if at all, because they showed up with an offer that was respectful of MLB’s time on the matter. They could have proposed a doubling or tripling of the minimum over the life of this CBA, but they did not. They instead just showed up with a reasonable request for what they wanted, all straight-shooter-like, and there really is no need for them to move on those figures unless it’s to do what they have already done, to make up for lost ground elsewhere. Similarly, the pre-arb pool stance they have is not something they need to move off of. MLB needs to convince the union that it’s worth giving up on, or they need to give in and ask for something else in another area to compensate for the ground they’d cede to the union by agreeing to make the pool as all-encompassing as it currently is proposed to be.

Remember, the union has to get something for giving in on an expanded postseason, and MLB’s current idea for a pre-arb bonus pool ain’t it. Agreeing to let $20 million trickle out annually in exchange for an overflowing expanded postseason revenue stream is a joke, but considering the utter lack of movement MLB is making elsewhere, they appear to think it’s an equitable trade. Remember that, and that it’s not always about meeting smack in the middle, the next time you see the PA refuse to budget on the minimum or to make sweeping changes to their pre-arb proposal.

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