Where MLB labor issues stand one year after owners’ lockout caused first work stoppage since 1994

The 2023 Major League Baseball Season is poised to be the first “normal” one in what feels like a very long time. 

The 2020 season was abbreviated to just 60 regular-season contests and was forced to conduct the playoffs in a bubble setting, all because of the global COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, in-person attendance was drastically limited for much of the year – also because of the pandemic. This past season, the entire thing seemed imperiled because of the owner-driven lockout, and once an accord was finally reached for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the start of the season was pushed back to April 7 and the schedule was compressed to make room for the later Opening Day and the expanded playoffs. 

That later cause of baseball upheaval brings us to the here and now. One year ago – just after midnight on Dec. 2, 2022 – the owners locked out the players and began the sport’s first labor stoppage since 1994. It would be 99 days before players and owners were able to agree to a new CBA. That agreement runs through the 2026 season, which means five years of uninterrupted play starting with the recently completed 2022 season. 

Given that we’re just, oh, shin-deep or so into the current CBA, it’s premature to say in any definitive fashion what the key issues will be. So to mark the unfortunate one-year anniversary of the lockout, let’s take a (very early) look at the current issues that might imperil some – or, perish the thought, all – of the 2027 season should negotiations on the next CBA prove too contentious. 

The international draft

Right now, this seems to be one of the big ones. Owners badly want an international draft in part to distribute international talent more evenly and in (larger) part to limit labor costs. The latter, of course, is their prevailing motivation in any CBA negotiation. 

Talks on an international draft extended beyond the last CBA negotiation by mutual agreement. However, no agreement was reached, tabling the issue until the next round of CBA talks. Owners had been offering to ditch the Qualifying Offer system for free agents in exchange for the union’s approval of an international draft, but the players’ side found that to be an uneven swap. “The League’s responses fell well short of anything Players could consider a fair deal,” the union said in a statement once the July deadline passed without an agreement.

Ultimately the union likely decided that getting rid of essentially modest anti-market restrictions on free agents was not worth what amounted to a major wish-list item for ownership. If owners still want an international draft – and they surely do – then they’ll very likely need to make a more substantial offer in return for it. 

Further playoff expansion

The current CBA expanded the postseason field from 10 teams to 12, but ownership pressed hard to go to 14. Common sense suggests they’ll do the same next time around. Minimizing the importance of MLB‘s signature regular season, which is what playoff expansion does, is certainly a penny-wise-but-pound-foolish approach, but maximizing revenues as often as possible and, regardless of consequences, seems to be MLB’s leading motivation these days. 

Because postseason broadcast rights are so lucrative, MLB will no doubt seek to haul in more, and the easiest way to do that is to add more games to sell. The union knows this is important to the league, which theoretically positions them to ask for something quite substantial in return and likewise makes it likely they won’t greenlight further expansion unless their wish is granted. The more we grow the playoffs, the more necessary it will be at some point to whittle down the regular season without running into November and cold weather and, more importantly, the NFL. However, regular-season media contracts, which are all forged at the level of the individual team and assume a full 162-game slate, will make that challenging. 

Teams that refuse to spend

This is the eternal struggle. Teams have so much guaranteed revenue these days in the form of local and national media contracts that there’s no excuse for them to not spend toward improving the on-field product. Yet it remains something of an epidemic that’s hurting the sport. The union in the past has resisted calling for a salary floor on principled grounds, and there’s also the fact that a hard floor would lead to a hard cap. Beyond that, would owners even consider it given that the Competitive Balance Tax – or, to be more accurate in spirit, the luxury tax – has come to function as a soft cap? Raising the minimum salary even more raises the floor, yes, but the MLBPA spent a lot of capital getting big bumps there for the current CBA. 

Whatever the case, if contenders like the Guardians and Rays don’t start getting a stronger good-faith effort from ownership, and if emerging contenders like the Orioles (and presumably the Cubs and Diamondbacks) don’t start pivoting to spend mode, then this figures to be a battleground once again. This, of course, is to say nothing of the utter dereliction of owner duties in Oakland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and elsewhere. Trying to force team owners to compete with one another at the most basic level will almost certainly be a union priority when the time comes. A related battle might be over putting in place stronger guarantees that revenue-sharing recipients won’t just funnel those monies into the pockets of ownership and will instead use them to improve the on-field product. 

Minor-league CBA negotiations 

In August, the surprise news dropped that the MLBPA would welcome minor-league players into its extended ranks and bargain on their behalf. At the same time, the MLBPA announced that it would begin operating under the umbrella of AFL-CIO, and the entire process was perhaps hastened when MLB voluntarily recognized any union representing minor-league players that emerges from the Players Association’s ongoing efforts.

The next step is to forge a CBA, which MLB and those representing minor leaguers are working on right now. Given that both sides are essentially working from scratch with no prior minor-league CBA to use as a framework, this is a heavy lift and may entail modest objectives on the part of the union in order to reach the finish line. That said, addressing compensation at the minor-league level will surely be a priority. While pay for minor-league players has increased modestly in recent years, they still make less than those players on G League rosters in basketball, NFL practice squads, or the American Hockey League. 

Theoretically, all of this should have nothing to do with the next major-league CBA, but, again, we’re in mapless territory. Will both sides seek a firewall of sorts that separates minor-league talks from major-league ones? Or will, say, owners seek to use concessions made to minor leaguers as a cudgel against players at the highest level? It’s not hard to imagine the ownership side seeking ways to make major-league players cover the rise in costs if and when minor leaguers wind up with improved pay and benefits. From a purely cynical standpoint, some owners would probably see such a tack as a way to sow division. 

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