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Owners’ latest proposal reiterates how good they are at stalling

And that’s a shame if you want your regularly-scheduled baseball action

MLB Owners Meetings Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

This Saturday, the owners made a long-awaited proposal, that by their own words, addressed “core economic issues.” As best we can tell, per reporting from ESPN’s Joon Lee, the players came away from the negotiating session “unimpressed” and without much clarity on a path forward. For those of us that want more baseball sooner, that’s a shame. As we get more details about the session and MLB’s apparently 130-page proposal, one thing is clear, and it’s not when the 2022 MLB season will start: the owners are doing a great job with the whole stalling thing.

While no owner nor their representative (hello, Commissioner Manfred) have flat-out come out and said that they intend to drag out the bargaining process, it appears reasonably self-evident at this point. The main point is that the owners didn’t “have” to lock out the players, and could have kept negotiating sans official lockout. Sure, the league office would say that a “defensive lockout” was “necessary,” in part due to the experience of 1994-1995, when the players commenced a strike in the middle of a season amid a lapsed Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), but to me that’s like saying I “have to” stop my toddler from drawing on the front door: I probably should, but it’s not exactly a life-or-death situation or anything. Beyond the forced-but-not-really lockout, the owners have made few proposals, have taken multiple key bargaining points off the table, and overall don’t really seem to have done much that indicates they care about getting back to preparing for the upcoming season.

It’s not that this is some kind of bewildering situation — of course the owners are doing this. They’re in the driver’s seat in essentially every capacity that isn’t “having the talent to put an entertaining product on the field,” and aren’t reliant on an association’s war chest to keep their lifestyles going. (The MLBPA started sending out stipend checks of $5,000 at one point, which both isn’t going to last long and isn’t much of a sop to players who make over eight times that a month at the league-minimum salary.) While there can be reasonable disagreement about the degree to which some of the ownership’s other moves, such as calling for federal mediation and then cancelling the delivery of a scheduled proposal, constitute an inspired stall tactic, that’s definitely where I come out.

One thing that has occasionally percolated in my gray matter is the ridiculousness of one of the sides sharing a proposal at a session, only for the proposal to be received with zero-ish enthusiasm. I am not and have never been involved with labor bargaining, but I routinely engage in negotiations professionally in other contexts among things that are even more contentious than this, and one thing that’s pretty common is for unofficial, backchannel communications between the two sides that can float ideas to make sure that when there is a meeting, it’s productive rather than another dead end/back to the drawing board moment. I keep thinking to myself, “Wait, why don’t MLB-MLBPA have these back channels?” But then I realize that the reason might be because the owners just don’t want to use them, because the start-and-stop approach to bargaining is part of the plan. Again, I might be shoving a bit too much onto ownership here, but I’m reasonably comfortable with (and confident in) my judgment here.

So, all of that brings us to today, where the owners made their long-awaited proposal on core economic issues. And, per the reporting so far, it’s a bit pants. The stalling kind of pants, which I guess in this metaphor are ones that are really hard to put on, or something. To be fair, I don’t think anyone that wasn’t in the session has gotten a copy of the entire 130-page proposal, but there’s not much in here that suggests that stalling isn’t still on the menu.

First things first — this is an emphatic power move:

“Hey, MLBPA! We are literally putting the countdown clock as the framing device for our entire session, because we know we can hold out longer than you can. So maybe think about that as you digest this offer.” If the offer were more magnanimous, you could see this as “pressure to come together and get a deal done.” But the offer being what it is, with the owners continuing to leverage their upper hand, it just reads as, “Yeah, think about this ticking clock as you review our latest. Read our lips: give in or else.”

Beyond that, it should’ve been clear to the MLB negotiators that their proposal, 130 pages or not, wasn’t going to move many needles. Again, though, maybe that was the point. While MLB’s statement that this proposal included some movement on “core economic issues” is technically correct, this mostly just consists of raising the luxury (“competitive balance,” oy, what a moniker) tax threshold upward and reducing some of the associated penalties. Adjustments to how soon players can hit salary arbitration eligibility remain off the table, time-to-free agency is such a non-starter the reporting covering this proposal doesn’t even mention it, and while I’m not super-sure as to why the players care so much about revenue sharing, the league won’t give them anything associated with that as a sop either, so there’s really not much “give” here. Not that we’d expect it, but still, stalling.

One thing that sticks out to me as a particular emblem of the time waste-y nature of this proposal is the league’s approach to “fixing” service time manipulation. MLB is proposing a system wherein, if a team calls up a rookie who incurs a full year of service time and that rookie finishes in the Top 3 of Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, or MVP voting, that team would get an extra draft pick. Apparently, the pick-granting would extend to at least one future year as well. (Details, as usual, are sparse.) In any case, this is a picture-perfect stall tactic — it’s complicated enough that you can debate the particulars (Top 3? Top 5? Top 10? Which picks are awarded? How many years down the line does the benefit last?) endlessly, but is ultimately without purpose: the calculus of an extra year of team control is so valuable that short of offering some incredibly early picks, it doesn’t look like any needle is going to be moved. Putting the determinant in the hands of awards voters adds some additional randomness that makes risk-averse teams (which is pretty much all of them) unlikely to bother. But that’s basically the point: throw in a random not-too-impactful clause amid the 130-page forest that invites debate about the shape of the leaves of a particular tree. The players want an end to service time manipulation, and I don’t think anyone’s going to be fooled by this proposed change as a way to get there.

There’s a few other elements of the proposal which also seem somewhat irrelevant — perhaps useful in general, but generally wasting valuable time when the gap between the sides on more important issues appear undraftable. The limits on how often players can be optioned in a single season seems like it could be positive all-around (short of any sinister riders, which some have suggested are present), except for having to constantly clear up the confusion between “that guy is out of options” and “that guy is out of this-year options but is in his second option year.” There are also some changes to drafting, including reinstating a version of draft-and-follow and forcing a (higher than status quo) fraction of slot to be paid to players that submitted pre-draft physicals, which are interesting but kind of beside the point. I haven’t seen much reporting on other critical aspects, including the exact playoff expansion proposal, whatever is replacing the current Qualifying Offer system, and apparently a lottery draft (this is a big change and the first I’m hearing of it...).

I’ve seen it suggested in a few places that the current impasse is the result of many things, including the need of both MLBPA head Tony Clark and 90s sports movie villain Rob Manfred to deliver a victory to their constituents. Clark has a highly unenviable position as the architect of the current situation wherein players are experiencing a declining share of league revenues with little recourse, largely as a result of what would be near-unanimously termed “defeats” during prior CBA negotiations. While Manfred’s base is sitting pretty, there’s a possibility that he feels he needs to deliver a total victory given that his tenure hasn’t really grown or benefited the game, has resulted in dueling nine-figure grievances over the extent of 2020 season, and per some reporting, has apparently galvanized the players in a way that wasn’t true during prior CBA negotiations. We can’t really judge what an average or replacement-level commissioner would be, but if Manfred himself feels his bosses could pick a name out of a hat and upgrade, well... he might feel some impetus to crush the players rather than just getting on with it.

In the course of writing this article, Jon Heyman tweeted something that is either from an ownership source or his own opinion, but mostly just reinforces my point:

So, if Heyman is not blowing smoke, MLB understood that its proposal was insufficient to facilitate a deal sooner rather than later, yet made it anyway with a literal calendar looming over the proceedings instead of just... making a better proposal that made more headway? Yeah, they’re stalling until the players cave. I didn’t need 1,600 words to get there, it was likely true before I wrote a single word in this post, but here we are. The idea that MLB wants to see greater movement from the players is flat-out ridiculous, as the players don’t really have anything to give. MLB is already proposing no changes to the six (sometimes seven!) years of team control, no changes to how many players are eligible for arbitration, piecemeal minimum salary changes which are helpful but not dramatic, a tiny bonus pool for a tiny fraction of pre-arbitration players, and so on. Where exactly are the players supposed to give? So, hey, another reason to stall — it’s like the stories I would read as a kid about riddles (which apparently translate to “Go I Know Not Whither and Fetch I Know Not What”) — “Dear MLBPA, we will keep stalling and holding the season hostage until you give us stuff, but you have literally nothing to give us because almost nothing is even up for negotiation, so it’s totally your fault that the season isn’t starting any time soon even though there is literally nothing you can walk back at this point anyway, so just accept the status quo but also give us expanded playoffs and then we can play a season, ‘kay?”

I don’t blame the owners for pressing their advantage, but I do blame them for jeopardizing a full season. Nothing they’ve done, including this proposal, suggests they’d prefer a full season with a less-favorable CBA than holding out for something like the status quo, regardless how many games are lost in the process. Maybe the tune will change one day, but it hasn’t yet.

In case you made it this far, some stuff:

  • This is the ESPN article from Jesse Rogers from which I grabbed most of my information.
  • Here’s labor lawyer Eugene Freedman on today’s (non-)events.
  • Here’s Maury Brown (via Forbes), who is a wonderful resource for nitty-gritty baseball stuff, showing how deluded Manfred’s earlier claim that investment in MLB ownership underperforms the market is.
  • And here are some highlights of the 2021 MLB season, in case you want a reminder of what’s being jeopardized by the owners’ effective non-participation (or ineffective participation?) in this round of bargaining.

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