The 2021 MLB season has finally drawn to a close. Now world champions, the Atlanta Braves ride off into the sunset while the Houston Astros head home. All is quiet and settled in the baseball world, but a storm still looms on the horizon: CBA discussions.
With the offseason officially beginning, the clock is rapidly ticking on the collective bargaining agreement. MLB and the players have until December 1 before doors close and operations grind to a halt. So much still needs to be worked out, from the universal DH to salaries and how free agency will operate going forward. All are details that both sides are still worlds apart on and it appears that a work stoppage is an inevitability at this point. It doesn’t help that Ronald Blum of the Associated Press noted that neither side is remotely satisfied with the other’s proposals.
Management source on the state of CBA negotiations: “As bad as I’ve ever see it.” Prediction: “2 1/2 months of pain”— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 10, 2021
CBA discussions will be MLB’s top priority as the offseason begins and a lockout is the last thing the sport needs. Coming not far out of a pandemic season in which the league only played 60 games and owners claimed “biblical” losses, MLB needs to get this right now rather than risk more damage to the integrity of the sport. Let’s go through a general rundown of what both sides want and where they clash.
MLB wants to further reduce player earnings in the CBA.
For the league and its owners, updating free agency and the luxury tax is key for this CBA. As it stands, teams that spend over $210 million on player salaries are subject to taxes that escalate per threshold passed. The league earlier proposed an update to that which would drop that first threshold to $180 million. To make that threshold easier to swallow, the league also proposed a salary floor. With the current threshold acting as hard tax for most teams, it reads like an excuse to shell out less for players.
Service time and free agency would also get an overhaul under the league’s proposal, making players free agents at age 29 1/2. While this does make manipulation impossible, it disproportionately affects younger, talented prospects. Take Juan Soto, who debuted at 19. Under current rules, he’s set for free agency in 2025 at age 26. With the league’s proposal, he’d reach that point in 2029. At his age and talent level, he’d draw a massive deal under the current system. Teams are often more hesitant to give longer deals to older players though. With the new system, he’d almost certainly get a shorter deal as a result of hitting the market near 30.
There’s a pretty straight through line with the MLB proposal: get a larger piece of the pie for owners. Concessions will have to be made to the players, but the league wants to add as much in as possible for profit. The league has also added some interesting wrinkles to its proposals. Scrapping arbitration for a WAR-based salary system, while intriguing, would almost certainly lead to playing time manipulation to keep player fWAR low. It’s an idea Rob Manfred has kicked around in the past and is solely designed to give teams more avenues to save money.
Players want rule changes and an end to manipulation and tanking.
Players, meanwhile, want some more minimal changes to the financial end that ensure better salaries in the long haul. Yes, I get it, players at the high end make ludicrous gobs of cash but only relative to average Americans and even the average player. Owners, however, dwarf the average player many times over in salary. To make the MLB more lucrative for players, the MLBPA is proposing a raise to the minimum salary and a quicker arbitration. It’s all designed to make it easier for the youngest, most talented players to earn their dues.
Combatting anti-competitiveness from teams is also a high priority. By changing how draft order works, the MLBPA is hoping to curb leaguewide tanking. Following the Cubs and Astros rebuilds, other teams have found the best way to build championship teams is to punt. It’s something that super-agent Scott Boras recently railed against, calling it a “cancer” on the league. As a fan, there is no worse word than tanking or any of the dreaded r-words associated with it. Players hate it just as much as less competitive teams mean fewer potential suitors in free agency.
“We don’t ever want a system that rewards being a lesser team. We have got a real cancer in this game. Now we know clubs will sacrifice seasons.”— SNY (@SNYtv) November 10, 2021
Scott Boras on the state of competition in baseball: pic.twitter.com/zT2RYm50wm
A few rules changes are on players’ radars for the CBA as well with the universal DH being the most prevalent. It’s a long-expected and desired rule championed by players for various reasons. For one, it limits the possibility of pitcher injuries while at-bat. From a product perspective, it gets better hitters to the plate more often and secures more jobs for players. It’s also a change that will create better markets for bat-first players as NL teams enter the mix.
In CBA discussions, it’s all about the money.
For all the rule and format changes that could come next year, money is always the end all be all. The rest is merely used as bargaining chips for better economic stakes. Considering both sides are pulling in completely different directions, it doesn’t look great. Again, there are no guarantees of a lockout, but the writing on the wall sure reads like one is coming.
The saving grace in these negotiations is that December 1 is somewhat of a soft deadline. While it would halt the offseason and all it entails, a work stoppage only becomes catastrophic once it cuts into the season. The true deadline is February when pitchers and catchers start reporting to Spring Training. Even then, the abbreviated offseason would put more pressure on players looking for their next contract.
If (or more likely when) a work stoppage comes, we can only hope for a quick resolution that finds the best of both worlds. I, for one, am on the players’ side here. The league’s proposals amount to no more than a ludicrous power grab. This CBA needs to look at how to make baseball the best it can be. That can only be accomplished through tackling anti-competitiveness and rewarding the people that make the game great.