If MLB’s owners wanted a deal, they have a funny way of showing it

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It should have been obvious that Major League Baseball and the Players Association were not close to a deal on Monday night. Still, though, fans can hardly be blamed for letting their optimism be abused by league sources and overly credulous media members; after all, they just wanted to watch some baseball when they expected to be able to watch some baseball, and belief that a deal was imminent helped to keep that particular dream alive.

The league leaned on their favorite reliable mouthpieces and also the likes of Bob Nightengale, who has, let’s say, something of a reputation for hurrying information out on Twitter without vetting it as much as it should be, in a way that isn’t necessarily reflected in his longer form published work, in order to inflate this sense that a deal was imminent — the idea, as was more plainly revealed the next afternoon, was that the league wanted to be able to act as if a deal was close until the players decided to instead face God and walk backwards into hell.

Why, though? The obvious answer is that they knew a deal wasn’t going to happen and they were going to have to cancel games, so they wanted to be able to deflect as much criticism of that as possible onto the players. There is more to it than that, though: such as, why MLB knew there wasn’t going to be a deal, even if they tried to exude a much different vibe in their leaks to reporters. Yes, there’s the simple math of things — not every reporter out there lost all reason on Monday night, you know, as those like Evan Drellich were still able to remind everyone that the purported pace at which a deal would be reached and the remaining gap between the two sides simply didn’t add up — but there’s also the fact that it’s difficult to construct an argument that the league even wanted there to be a deal before their self-imposed deadline.

The “why” of not wanting a deal is what’s still up for debate. Blue Jays’ player rep for the union, Ross Stripling, felt that the league was trying to get too cute with their proposals, with late-night attempts to sneak in language that made for a worse deal — one they hoped the players would either be too unintelligent or too tired to notice the problems with:

“It got to be like 12:30 and the fine print of their CBT proposal was stuff we had never seen before,” Stripling said. “They were trying to sneak things through us, it was like they think we’re dumb baseball players and we get sleepy after midnight or something. It’s like that stupid football quote, they are who we thought they were. They did exactly what we thought they would do. They pushed us to a deadline that they imposed, and then they tried to sneak some shit past us at that deadline and we were ready for it. We’ve been ready for five years. And then they tried to flip it on us today in PR, saying that we’ve changed our tone and tried to make it look like it was our fault. That never happened.”

While Stripling didn’t provide any detail of what kinds of things the owners were trying to “sneak” through, the reporting of Drellich might have shed some light on that:

One of the league’s efforts that irked the players was a proposal to incorporate meal money and the stipends players receive into the luxury-tax calculations. MLB, in other words, wanted to count the amount of money players receive for food against the amount of money teams can spend before they are taxed.

The luxury tax already includes some player benefit costs — it’s not just a strict accounting of player salary. But players were angry, sources said, the league would try to add something as fundamental as the cost of food as a reason to spend less on payroll. MLB also tried to include stipends paid to players who participate in the All-Star Game, the Home Run Derby and other special events, sources said.

The league essentially said, sure, we’ll raise the luxury tax threshold, but we’re going to count money we’re already spending on players against it. Meal money, the stipends players receive for special events they’re forced to participate in unless they have an injury. It’s not a huge amount of cash in the grand scheme of things, no, which actually just makes it all the more ridiculous that it’s even included as a consideration.

These are the actions of an extremely petty bargaining partner, and they had to have known the players would reject these proposals out of hand — that submitting them in this form was a waste of time, and that there was no way that, if they were still at this stage of negotiations, that a deal was anywhere close to being completed.

This all feeds into another issue that players have brought up since Monday’s and Tuesday’s bargaining sessions: the league might not want to have games in April at all, so there was no reason for them to want a deal just yet. R.J. Anderson wrote about the words of Jason Heyward and Jameson Taillon, both of whom accused the league of wanting to be paid by regional sports networks in April without having to pay players for those games, at CBS Sports:

Why would the owners be so eager to sacrifice April?

The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal noted earlier this week that April games tend to be  poorly attended, and that teams may not have to offer rebates on their local television contracts until about 25 games are missed — 25 games being, of course, a full month’s worth. Because teams won’t have to pay players for missed games, it reasons that the owners may be coming out ahead financially in that trade-off.

What’s more is that, if the owners time things right, they can agree to a CBA in time for a season long enough that their television deals will pay in whole. Factor in that the eventual CBA could include an expanded postseason (worth an additional $85 million in revenue) and perhaps on-uniform advertisements (another $150 million), and the owners are sitting prettier than most outsiders might realize.

There are flaws to this plan, which I already went over at Baseball Prospectus on Thursday (it’s free to read!), but just because a plan has flaws in it doesn’t mean MLB’s owners would avoid deploying it. Basically, the league might see losing April as no loss at all, and maybe even May as not much of a loss since eventually there would be a season, meaning eventually there would be broadcast revenue and gate revenue and postseason revenue, but all of that hinges on there actually being a season that can pay them broadcast, gate, and postseason revenue. To put it plainly, the owners might fuck around and find out.

It remains unclear when serious bargaining will take place again. Or for the first time, depending on your perspective here. April seems like it’s going to be lost, though, whether it’s because the owners are very much looking forward to free checks from RSNs for games they don’t need to pay player salaries for, or because they exclusively see April as a point of leverage for them as they wait for union solidarity to break. Or, you know, both of those things. How much longer things could go beyond April, though, is a question that requires more than a concluding paragraph in this story to answer.

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