How to Solve the Biggest Issues in the MLB Labor Dispute
By Aaron Yorke
The major league portion of the Winter Meetings, which is the only part that even diehard seamheads care about, was canceled due to the MLB lockout. As soon as the previous collective bargaining expired after 11:59 p.m. on Wednesday, baseball’s commissioner Rob Manfred and the owners put the lockout in place as a means to speed up negotiations between them and the MLB Players Union. It’s tough to negotiate with free agents when we don’t know what the rules are, anyway.
It’s a bummer for fans who were fresh off the most frenzied spurt of offseason activity in years, but that free agency bonanza only happened because of the expiring CBA anyway. It’s also a bummer to go to MLB’s official website and see it stripped of any remotely interesting content… Just a couple of stories about retired players and state-sponsored messages about how badly Manfred wants baseball back, but those selfish players are getting in the way.
And make no mistake, the players are being selfish, but so is everyone else. Most of us fans just want them to agree on something so we can get back to dreaming about our team winning the World Series.
The players counter that this isn’t just about the cream of the crop, and in the middle tier is where players are victims of the rules in the current CBA. In fact, according to ESPN, middle-tier salaries have been dropping in recent years even while superstars like Bryce Harper and Mookie Betts have signed mega-deals.
The reason for that is one of the major obstacles towards labor peace in 2021 and beyond: The six-year gap between a player arriving in the major leagues and that player hitting free agency. As front offices have gotten smarter and more efficient in recent years, they’ve realized that many players provide a lot of value in those first six years and not as much afterwards. That’s especially true for middle-tier players who don’t arrive in the majors at age 20 or 21. Late bloomers who first arrive at age 24 won’t hit free agency until age 30, and at that point, no one wants to invest a lot of money in someone whose most productive days are very likely behind him.
So how do we fix this? It’s going to get ugly if the players ask the owners to shorten that six-year span because doing so would only hurt small-market teams and deepen the concerns about competitive balance that the players have. A more realistic solution is to make sure the players get paid more during those years before they hit free agency. The owners probably won’t be too opposed to this because they’re fine paying players while they are providing top value. That’s why it’s reasonable for the players to ask for the arbitration period to be moved up so that it begins in a player’s second or third year of service instead of the fourth.
This will allow for players who explode as rookies to make more money quickly, and the owners still win because they keep their six years of control. Another way to help middle-tier players would be to shorten the service time they need to reach free agency if they reach the majors at a certain age. Those plucky late bloomers who scrap around the minor leagues for years before finally achieving their dreams are unable to cash in when they finally reach free agency as 33-year-olds whose defensive value has diminished.
In exchange, the players can throw the owners a bone and give them the expanded postseason they so desperately want with those juicy revenue streams that come attached to nationally televised games. An expanded postseason might not even ruin the regular season if a system is put into place that continues to reward division winners and keep pennant races interesting, even for the teams that are above the cut line.
The second major obstacle toward labor peace is the qualifying offer system that attaches players who reject those offers to draft-pick penalties. Because of those six years of team control, building through the draft remains very important in baseball, and that’s a good thing because it allows teams like Tampa Bay and Oakland to compete with the big spenders. However, it leads to those middle-tier players to be treated unfairly when they reject qualifying offers.
Let’s hope that the earlier arbitration, earlier free agency for late-blooming players, and no penalties for “qualifying offer” players is enough to satisfy the players’ demands. If not, and they want a more revolutionary tear-down of the six-year system that keeps players tethered to the teams that draft them, we could be looking at a very long lockout.
If this labor dispute approaches spring training, the people who will get hurt the most are the stadium workers, grounds crews, front office analysts, and pretty much everyone working in baseball who isn’t making millions of dollars. Hopefully the owners and players realize this and get a deal done as soon as possible instead of focusing on pointless posturing like changing their Twitter avatars. If they concentrate on solutions instead, we might just see a second straight full baseball season. Wouldn’t that be something?
NY Times: MLB’s Lockout: What Is It? How Does It Work? What’s Next?
Sporting News: MLB Lockout: 5 Teams, 5 Players Stuck in Limbo During Work Stoppage
CBS Sports: MLB Lockout: Fact-Checking Commissioner Rob Manfred’s Open Letter to Baseball Fans
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