While Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association have officially reached a deal on a temporary re-working of the collective bargaining agreement, the details are still filtering out. One key element of the coronavirus alteration is the role of the competitive balance (“luxury”) tax.
The CBT has played a notable role in structuring roster decisionmaking in recent years. Even those organizations willing to pay it from time to time have sought to avoid doing so in consecutive seasons. Repeat offenders pay heavier rates on their overages. Big-spending teams have come to recognize that dipping back under the bar to reset the luxury tax rate can make for massive savings.
We have learned some details of the modified system (see here and here), including the fact that there’s no CBT obligation if a season isn’t played. (Otherwise, it’ll be handled on a pro-rated basis.) But that doesn’t mean that, in the unfortunate event of a cancelled season, every team would start with a clean slate in the 2020-21 offseason. Instead, per Alex Speier of the Boston Globe (Twitter link), the pre-2020 CBT status would carry forward.
This news is directly pertinent to the three teams that incurred a luxury tax penalty in 2019: the Red Sox, Yankees, and Cubs. In the event of a season cancellation, they’d all head into the 2021 season without a reset. That could have major implications for the Boston and Chicago organizations, in particular.
While the Yankees were planning to blow past the $208MM luxury tax line regardless, the Red Sox and Cubs were not. The Boston club — a two-time repeat payer of the luxury tax — had already moved below the 2020 mark and was clearly planning on a reset. The Cubs were sitting just above the threshold when Spring Training was suspended. Calculation depends upon the contracts added or removed during the course of the season, so the Cubs expected to have a chance to reevaluate as the campaign progressed.
This bit of news may not end up mattering. If the 2020 season is played, the Red Sox will get their reset and the Cubs will still have a chance to adjust their payroll to dip under the luxury threshold — so long as there’s an opportunity to make trades, at least. Then again, the calculus would be quite a bit different than originally anticipated in a short-season format without a typical trade deadline period.