Veteran reporter Ken Rosenthal has sounded the alarm for the possibility of a MLB work stoppage in a piece today at The Athletic (subscription link). He opens the article with the eyebrow-raising observation that “the threat of the sport’s first work stoppage since 1994-95 is palpable.”
Importantly, Rosenthal does not cite sources for the proposition that a strike or lockout are specifically being contemplated now or in the immediate future. But the fact that such a well-placed reporter characterizes the state of affairs in that manner is noteworthy in and of itself. And the piece does document a few nuggets of information that hint that the possibility is in the back of the minds of some. For instance, per the report, the players “have taken the unusual step of authorizing the union to withhold their entire [licensing fees] checks” to keep a reserve fund in place.
It’s hardly novel at this point to see the concept of a labor war floated. Certainly, the increasingly antagonistic relationship between Major League Baseball (and its member teams) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (along with the players that make up its membership) has long been observed. Market changes have been evident since the current CBA went into effect, with last winter’s laborious free-agent market bringing things into sharp focus.
This time last year, it was already clear that change was afoot. But it was generally emphasized, here and elsewhere, that the next winter’s market — that is, the one we’re in at present — would offer a better test due to the presence of uniquely youthful and accomplished superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado (along with some other high-end talents). As it turns out, it’s now clear at the winter-long staring contest is not just a one-year phenomenon. Though some significant contracts have been handed out, it’s obvious that teams now have ample resolve when it comes to negotiating major deals.
The question remaining now is how much more cash remains to be distributed — an end game that is upon us with Spring Training closing in. No doubt the union side is still waiting to see precisely how things will shake out, though the above-linked article does not paint a particularly optimistic picture of expectations.
It seems the rub of the issue is just when and how the league and union will head back to the bargaining table on some key elements of the labor accord. Agent Sam Levinson, who warns of a scenario where the sides end up “locking arms and walking off the cliff together,” notes to Rosenthal that “the CBA has been opened in the past to address compelling issues.” Unsurprisingly, MLB chief legal officer Dan Halem has a different perspective, saying he’s “not sure why we are talking about ’walking off the cliff together’ when we are three years away from the expiration of our collective bargaining agreement and there has been no effort by the MLBPA to engage in discussions on these issues.”
As Rosenthal rightly points out, the league surely cannot force teams to spend more money. At the same time, there’s little question that it negotiated the CBA with a healthy dose of foresight regarding the trends in front office valuations, cost-efficient roster-building approaches, and the rising tide of young, affordable talent. While teams likewise cannot be faulted for seeking and seizing advantage, both in collective bargaining talks and in their actions under the bargained-for rules regime, there does seem at minimum to be a legitimate need to, as Rosenthal puts it, “work around the edges of the CBA to create incentives for teams to compete to the fullest.”
Just what that might look like, and how it might come together, isn’t at all clear — hence, the sense of tension. But it’s interesting to wonder whether a solution might not be found in an area that ought to be of concern to all involved. There’s a major competitive imbalance in the American League, in particular, that likely has not only strongly contributed to depressions in the free-agent market, but has likewise impacted the league’s increasing attendance problem. While that concern has been dismissed by some (including myself) in the past, it seems more and more to be a root issue.
Is there a means of inducing more teams to seek near-term wins, such that the overall MLB product (and its revenue-producing capacity) is improved and such that teams have good reason to spend more on players? Might there be a positive, collaborative path to pursue, which may at least offer a partial solution to the labor rumblings while also helping to reduce misgivings? We will have to see how things proceed, but it would surely behoove all involved to begin looking for ways to engage in a constructive manner.