Once again, Major League Baseball will have labor peace, a phrase that for some reason always reminds me of Boss Nass shouting “Peace!” as he lifts the energy ball at the end of Star Wars: Episode I. Also reminiscent of that film is how this labor negotiation was billed as enormously consequential and turned out to be a bit of a dud. Though a document of this importance and complexity will no doubt take weeks to finalize, MLB and the MLB Players Association shook hands on a deal in principle Wednesday night, hours before the existing collective bargaining agreement was set to expire. So while details are subject to change, let’s take a look at some of the information that’s emerged so far.
1. By the end of this CBA, baseball will have gone 26 years without a work stoppage.
Avoiding a work stoppage is being trumpeted as some sort of major achievement, proof that unlike in other sports, labor and management are on the same page in baseball. And while everyone’s still got scars from the canceled 1994 World Series, this view is misguided for three reasons: First, the expiration of the CBA did not automatically augur a work stoppage — either the union (a strike) or ownership (a lockout) would have had to vote to shut down the factory, and with close to $10 billion in annual revenue to split up, neither side is quite that spiteful. Second, it’s the middle of the offseason — the next event worth worrying about is the World Baseball Classic, which doesn’t start for more than three months. (Trust me, if the winter meetings didn’t happen, you wouldn’t miss them.) There have been eight work stoppages in MLB history, and the 1994–95 strike is the only one that’s lasted longer than 50 days.
Third, labor peace for its own sake isn’t the point of this exercise. The reason the players’ union exists — and the reason MLB opposes it with such vigor it elevated its chief labor negotiator, Rob Manfred, to its highest office — is to secure a fair share of that $10 billion pie for its members. Tony Clark and Co. don’t, and can’t, answer to a public constituency other than the players because the public is conditioned to side with the team (e.g., kids grow up as Reds fans, not Johnny Cueto fans, so their allegiance remains with the team even after the player leaves) and fears nothing more than another work stoppage.
That’s why you can’t get sucked in by the big numbers and the idea of “making millions to play a game” and forget that this is a battle between a government-subsidized multibillion-dollar cartel and its labor force, which isn’t even making a product. That labor force is the product, and if tomorrow every player in the league were forced to take a pay cut to $15 an hour, the cost of your ticket or your MLB.tv package or a beer at the ballpark would not decrease one cent.
As the MLBPA fights for things like better pensions and less restrictive free agency and higher minimum salaries, remember that anti-worker rhetoric used in service of baseball’s management gets repurposed to depress salaries for teachers, nurses, and fast food cooks or to dictate where they can work and live or to keep them from achieving anything resembling a healthy work-life balance.
The godfather of the MLBPA, the late Marvin Miller, was a party to five work stoppages in his 16-year tenure as the union’s executive director, and while those were no doubt inconvenient or disconcerting to fans, they bought the players such advances as improved pensions, salary arbitration, free agency, and a more than tenfold increase in the average salary.
2. Rosters stay the same size, but the minimum DL stay gets cut from 15 days to 10.
As much fun as it was to imagine what teams would do with a 26th roster spot, that turned out to be all talk. That means we’ll continue to have September call-ups, and while the Rule 5 draft just got a lot less interesting, it also means that major league bullpens, bloated as they are already, will not become more so.
On the other hand, altering the DL rules alleviates some of the need for that extra roster spot. Starting pitchers can go on the DL and miss only one outing, for instance, and teams will probably be more willing to sit players with nagging injuries, which makes everyone’s life just a little bit easier.
3. The luxury tax threshold is going up, but so are the penalties for violating it.
MLB is the only major North American sports league without a salary cap, but its de facto soft cap, the luxury tax, will go up incrementally from its current $189 million threshold to $210 million by the end of the deal in 2021. But while the outgoing CBA taxes the overage by a maximum of 50 cents on the dollar for teams that go over the tax in four consecutive seasons, the new CBA will increase the maximum rate to as much as 92 percent for teams that routinely field payrolls more than $40 million above the cap.
Odious as stiffening penalties for exceeding the de facto salary cap might seem, this is at worst a wash for the players, because the previous CBA’s steady $189 million cap was decreasing in real terms relative to the forces of inflation and rising revenues. Moreover, while the Dodgers in particular did not give a good goddamn about the luxury tax — and are likely the specific reason MLB wrote in the rate hike at $250 million — many other big-market teams treat the luxury tax like a hard cap.
Here’s the upshot: The new luxury tax rules will force the Yankees and Dodgers to trim the fat a little, which shouldn’t be that hard since so many of the big contracts that caused them to go over in the first place (Alex Rodriguez, Andre Ethier, Mark Teixeira, Carl Crawford) are coming off the books soon. Meanwhile, other big-market teams, like the Cubs, Red Sox, and Giants, who have stayed relatively close to the tax, will have a little more wiggle room now.
4. There’s no international draft, but what we got instead is worse.
A draft, particularly one with bonus restrictions, is a way to depress salaries by reducing players’ leverage under the guise of preserving competitive balance. If MLB actually wanted competitive balance, it could beef up revenue sharing; the draft, spending caps, and international bonus rules are all a canard.
With that said, when MLB started floating the idea of an international draft, I was pleasantly surprised that the MLBPA put up a fight instead of immediately caving in exchange for some other concession that benefited the union’s constituency of big leaguers the way it did on draft slotting for American and Canadian amateurs. Essential as the MLBPA is, and as laudable as its goals are most of the time, it has seldom resisted the temptation to sell the next generation of union members out to benefit current union members, whether through amateur spending caps, minor league salaries that would be unlivable for workers in any profession, or delaying arbitration and free agency for newly promoted big leaguers.
This time, the union beat back the international draft, but no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.
Under the outgoing CBA, each team has a set amount of money to spend on international amateurs, ranging in 2016 from a little over $2 million for the Cardinals to $5.6 million for the Phillies, with escalating penalties for going over it, which teams do routinely, sometimes by tens of millions of dollars if the right player comes along. Under the new CBA, every team will get a hard cap of between $4.75 million and $5.75 million a year to spend on international amateurs.
Moreover, the upper age limit for players covered by the cap is going up from 23 to 25, which, depending on how that rule impacts MLB’s posting arrangement with NPB, could keep Japanese wunderkind Shohei Otani from coming to the U.S. for three more years.
Now, we don’t know what the “or else” is, whether it’s something as lenient as a penalty or whether any bonuses past $5.75 million get voided entirely, but it’s worth laying out what the league and the union have done to the (mostly Latin American) amateurs this new rule affects.
I can get behind a lot of moral relativism, but when billionaires use the draft to try to cut labor costs on the backs of teenagers and eliminate the agency of entry-level players to choose their place of employment, that’s [stamps foot, points finger] wrong, even when the teenagers in question are Americans from upper-middle-class families who can go to college instead.
When the teenagers in question grew up in the Dominican Republic or Cuba with four generations of a family in a two-bedroom apartment and would be going to pick tobacco for a living if they couldn’t spin a curveball, and most of what bonus they get goes to trainers and buying their family food, that’s [stamps foot, points finger] wrong, with a garnish of colonialist ugliness on top. When the teenagers in question escaped Cuba, risking imprisonment, drowning, and permanent separation from friends and family for the chance to live the American dream, no condemnation can be too strong.
The money MLB will save on international amateur bonuses is an afterthought in a multibillion-dollar industry. That greed could so blind the league to basic human compassion and empathy is all the more heartbreaking because it’s so unsurprising. That the union is complicit makes it worse. This would be wrong if MLB made food or medicine and needed to cut costs to stay in business. That an entertainment company is squeezing poor teenagers for no other reason than it can is unconscionable. Not that conscience seems to matter.
5. Free-agent-compensation rules are changing a little.
Under the outgoing CBA, teams can extend to free agents who have been on the team all season a qualifying offer that’s the average of the top 125 salaries in baseball (about $17.2 million this year). If the player declines the QO, any team that signs him would forfeit (with some exceptions) its first-round pick, and the player’s old team would get a compensation-round pick as, well, compensation.
The new system changes the compensation and qualifying offer system by [trips, falls down flight of stairs, spilling armful of papers everywhere].
Players can get hit with only one qualifying offer in their career, and compensation is now contingent on about six different factors that tie in the international pool and the luxury tax and, frankly, I wish I’d taken the time I spent trying to understand and regurgitate those contingencies and learned how to play the bassoon instead. You can go figure it out on your own time.
How they arrived at such a ludicrous system probably has to do with the following sentence in Jayson Stark’s omnibus CBA story: “By the time the deal was reached Wednesday, the two sides had been negotiating almost continuously for more than 24 hours — on little or no sleep.”
6. League policies on drug use and domestic violence are going to get tougher.
Even if MLB’s childish and prudish attitude toward drugs in the 21st century has been a public relations albatross, if it’s serious about cracking down on PEDs, it should act like it. It’s also good to see both the league and the union take domestic violence seriously, not only because it’s a plague on the league, but because MLB can use its bully pulpit to help society at large to become less permissive of intimate partner violence.
With that said, we shouldn’t cheer on domestic violence penalties designed to make us feel better about watching the likes of Aroldis Chapman or José Reyes if those policies don’t actually help prevent further instances of domestic violence. Deadspin’s Diana Moskovitz lays out the ways in which draconian punishment for domestic violence can drive victims underground and even exacerbate the abuse itself. Our criminal justice system has abdicated its responsibility to victims so completely that MLB can’t help but act, and I’m glad it is, but I only hope that the new policy shows that the league understands how complex an issue it has chosen to confront.
7. A bunch of other, smaller things are going to change.
- This one doesn’t count anymore. Home-field advantage in the World Series will no longer be tied to the winner of the All-Star Game (it will go to the pennant winner with the better record). Perhaps no more trivial decision in recent baseball history has been so widely derided, so I can’t imagine cutting bait on this was a huge point of contention.
- Incoming MLB players will not be allowed to use smokeless tobacco at the ballpark, though current players will be grandfathered in. Keeping more ballplayers from dying horribly from cancer is an undeniable good, but I shed a tear of nostalgia for Lenny Dykstra, who used to play with a tangerine-sized wad of dip in his cheek and paint the center-field turf at Veterans Stadium brown with his spit.
- Starting in 2018, the season will start in the middle of the week, rather than on Sunday or Monday, in order to add a handful of off days to the regular season. That’s a good way to make the grind a little easier on players and their families, and it costs ownership nothing.
- The A’s, who play in the league’s fourth-biggest market, will see their cut of revenue-sharing money reduced and ultimately eliminated in 2020, by which time they’ll have found a new stadium, been sold, or started running a payroll that makes the Marlins look like the Yankees.
On the surface, this feels like status quo ante bellum, with a slight walkback of the total ass-kicking the union took on free-agent compensation in 2011, to the peril of 16-year-old Latin American kids. Long live capitalism.