Major League Baseball and the MLB Players’ Association have been circling one another warily for some time now, with occasional moments of accord but a pervasive sense of tension. Now, as Tyler Kepner of the New York Times reports, they’re headed back to the formal bargaining table long before the expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement at the tail end of the 2021 season.
Ever since the last Basic Agreement was hammered out, readily discernible changes in teams’ market behavior have spurred growing unhappiness from the players’ side. Union chief Tony Clark put it in stark terms to Kepner, saying flatly that “the system doesn’t work.” He also offered a warning: “either we’re going to have a conversation now, or we’re going to have a louder conversation later.”
Of course, there were indications of systemic problems even before the latest CBA, with increasingly analytically advanced teams finding new ways to achieve cost-efficient on-field performance. But the changes to the game’s governing document only exacerbated matters for players, with new luxury tax rules creating new spending disincentives for teams. After two tense winters, we saw a dizzying run of extensions this spring. That spate of dealing seemingly reflected some fear and uncertainty in the free agent process as well as labor peace more generally. It put new money in players’ pockets, but also took quite a few potentially valuable seasons of future performance out of future open-market scenarios.
Over the past two and a half years, the MLBPA has hired a chief negotiator, added a familiar face to advise on PR, launched a still-unresolved grievance action against several teams, and otherwise made clear it is readying for a larger battle. While the league and union attempted to sort through a range of matters over the offseason, only a few rule changes were implemented.
Every on-field or transactional tweak proposed has understandably been viewed through a broader economic lens. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred’s pace-of-play initiatives have met headwinds from the players, perhaps owing to a need to find leverage that’s otherwise lacking. After all, the CBA is binding until it expires. And the players’ side will face many challenges in winning a better deal.
All of those developments have felt like a prelude to the unusual and potentially quite complicated process that is now being plotted out. Understandably, the initial discussion is a logistical one. Kepner says that the bigwigs on both sides of the aisle have chatted in person about how to approach this early engagement on the CBA.
On the league side, deputy commissioner Dan Halem says the goal is “a system that satisfies our competitive-balance concerns and basically keeps the overall economics where they are — but at the same time addresses the issues that [the players are] going to bring to us.” He reemphasized MLB’s oft-stated position that the players continue to enjoy the same-sized pie slice they always have, framing the matter as “really a distribution issue.”
It’s unlikely that Clark and company would fully agree with that sentiment. All can agree broadly with the goals of enhancing competition and ensuring that the game’s best talent is playing in the majors as soon as it’s ready. But the players also desire those results because they hope to unlock new earning avenues for more of their members. Per Kepner, they also wish to “restor[e] meaningful free agency” and improve the earning power of players with lesser service time. That sounds like something quite a bit different from redistribution; it sounds like the players ultimately want more pie. There are different ways to count the leaguewide dollars and cents. The players will undoubtedly argue their share has fallen and seek more.