This is the second piece in a two-part series previewing the upcoming 2016 collective bargaining negotiations between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association. Part I of the series examined the new leadership dynamic at MLB and the MLBPA, various economic issues (including the players’ declining share of league revenues, the qualifying offer system, and service time manipulation), and possible changes to the league’s Joint Drug Agreement.
In this post, I will be looking at bargaining issues related to the draft (international and domestic), along with various pace-of-play and scheduling issues, before offering a preliminary assessment of the likelihood that a work stoppage will impact the 2017 season.
Since taking office, Rob Manfred has repeatedly suggested that one of his top priorities as commissioner is to implement a worldwide MLB draft, in one form or another (whether it be holding a single draft for all domestic and international prospects, or alternatively creating a separate draft for international players). As a result, one can safely assume that reaching an agreement on a “single method of entry into the game” – as Manfred likes to say – will undoubtedly be a top priority for MLB in the coming negotiations.
It is unclear whether the MLBPA will be willing to agree to subject international players to a draft, however. On the one hand, because a worldwide draft would only impact future players, it would not directly harm the union’s existing membership. This might convince a majority of the union to agree to an international draft in exchange for other concessions from the league that would provider a greater benefit to current players. Indeed, Buster Olney has previously reported that MLB is prepared to make “significant concessions” to the players if they agree to some form of a worldwide draft.
On the other hand, Latin American players have traditionally opposed an international draft, fearing that it could harm baseball’s development in their home countries. For instance, some believe that Puerto Rico’s inclusion in the draft has hampered the sport’s popularity on the island. Some players worry that a similar outcome would befall the Dominican Republic and Venezuela should a worldwide draft be implemented, diminishing the incentive for MLB teams to invest in their countries. As a result, one can safely assume that a non-insignificant percentage of MLB players will object to any agreement that creates an international draft.
MLB and the MLBPA previously discussed a potential international draft during the last round of collective bargaining, eventually agreeing to delegate the matter to a new “International Talent Committee” tasked with resolving the issue. However, considering that that committee has been unable to reach an agreement on the matter over the last four years, hurdles obviously remain. Whether the league and union will be able to overcome these issues during the course of collective bargaining is uncertain.
Even assuming that the MLBPA is willing to agree to an international draft, however, there would still be a number of other legal and logistical hurdles that the league would have to overcome in order for a worldwide draft to become a reality.
For instance, MLB would have to renegotiate its existing agreements with the Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese professional baseball leagues – contracts that regulate the movement of players from these countries to the United States – if players from these nations are to be included in a worldwide draft. This could prove to be quite difficult, since the existing posting systems utilized by these leagues – in which MLB teams spend tens of millions of dollars bidding for the exclusive right to sign foreign players – are incompatible with an international draft. How MLB would resolve this issue is unclear.
The league would confront similar challenges in Latin America. For starters, a true international draft would have to include talent coming out of Cuba. And while MLB has been working with the Cuban and U.S. governments in recent months to streamline the process through which Cuban players emigrate to the United States, some doubt whether the existing Cuban regime will ever allow its players to freely play professionally in the United States.
Meanwhile, the inclusion of prospects from the Dominican Republican and Venezuela in a worldwide draft is likely to raise diplomatic issues with those countries’ governments, as well. So even if the union were to agree to an international draft, there is no guarantee that MLB would be able to overcome these political obstacles and actually implement a worldwide draft anytime soon. As a result, these logistical issues could potentially reduce the importance that the league places on the issue in the coming negotiations.
Should an agreement on an international draft prove elusive, one can expect that the league and MLBPA will, at a minimum, agree to a new set of rules governing the international signing bonus pool system. As the last couple years have shown, the existing framework – in which each team is permitted to spend a certain amount of money on international amateur talent, with penalties for exceeding the specified threshold – has clearly failed to reign in the international spending of the largest market teams. Look for MLB and the union to agree to a stricter set of penalties should they be unable to agree upon a worldwide draft in the next CBA.
Domestic Draft Issues
Setting aside the possibility of an international draft, MLB and the MLBPA can also be expected to discuss various issues related to the current June draft. For example, the union was particularly upset over the fallout from the Astros’ 2014 draft, when Houston’s failure to sign top overall draft pick Brady Aiken caused the team to revoke the contract offer it had made to fellow draftee Jacob Nix. As a result, the MLBPA may propose reworking the existing rules governing teams’ draft signing bonus pools in the hopes of avoiding a similar situation in the future.
Relatedly, Jeff Passan reported earlier this year that the league and union would discuss the potential creation of a MLB Draft combine – similar to those in the NFL and NBA – during the upcoming collective bargaining negotiations. Whether such a process would simply involve league-wide, pre-draft reports on likely draft picks’ medical status – reducing the fear that a team-employed doctor would overstate a medical concern in order to improve a club’s bargaining leverage over a player – or would also subject prospects to various physical tests (60-yard dash, throwing velocity, etc.), remains to be determined.
Finally, the parties can be expected to discuss the scheduling of the draft, as well. Commissioner Manfred has stated that the current draft schedule – which typically coincides with the NCAA tournament, preventing many top prospects from attending the draft in person – is less than ideal. While it may not be feasible to hold the draft during All-Star week as Dave Cameron has previously suggested, it’s possible that the league and union will agree to push the draft back a bit so that it could be held after the completion of the College World Series.
Pace of Play & Scheduling Issues
Finally, the parties can also be expected to discuss various pace-of-play and scheduling issues during the CBA negotiations. Commissioner Manfred has made speeding up the game a priority for his administration, and has spoken favorably regarding the 20-second pitch clock introduced in the minor leagues this past season. As a result, it would not be surprising if MLB sought to implement a pitch clock or other pace-of-play measures during the coming negotiations.
If MLB does attempt to introduce a pitch clock, the initiative will likely be met by some significant pushback from the players union. MLBPA executive director Tony Clark has publicly expressed the view that a pitch clock would not work at the major league level, likely reflecting skepticism among his constituency.
Meanwhile, the union can be expected to raise the possibility of shortening the regular season from 162 games back to the 154 games, as was traditional before 1960. The MLBPA has brought this issue up with the league before, and while Commissioner Manfred has noted that any shortening of the season would have major economic implications requiring some concessions by players elsewhere, he acknowledged that there has been more discussion within the game of shortening the season than at any point in recent memory.
Even if a 154-game season isn’t achievable in the next CBA, the union will likely try to incorporate some other policy changes that could lessen the wear and tear that players experience throughout the season. For instance, the MLBPA may look to implement a new rule ensuring that teams will receive a mandatory day off when traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast, similar to the rule already in place when teams go from the Pacific to the Eastern time zone.
At a minimum, one would think that the two sides should be able to reach an agreement on some minor changes along these lines to help reduce the physical toll of the playing season for the players.
The Odds of a Work Stoppage
It is difficult to accurately predict the likelihood of a work stoppage more than a year before the current CBA expires. Until the parties begin preliminary negotiations, no one knows for sure exactly what issues they will prioritize or what bargaining positions they will take. And even then, there is no telling what unanticipated issues could emerge between now and next December.
That having been said, given what we know today, it does not appear that a prolonged strike or lockout is particularly likely to emerge from the 2016 negotiations. Typically, work stoppages – especially those of a significant duration – are most likely to occur in the sports industry when either the league or the players union is seeking some sort of drastic change to the economic structure of the sport.
Neither MLB nor the MLBPA appears likely to pursue a fundamental change of this sort in 2016. For example, although the players are certainly facing difficult issues regarding their declining share of league revenues, there is no indication that the union would actually go so far as to seek a guaranteed minimum share of revenues during the upcoming talks. Instead, as I noted in Part I of this series, the players appear more likely to pursue incremental changes, tinkering around the periphery of the sport’s existing economic structure.
Meanwhile, MLB does not appear likely to request any significant changes to baseball’s economic system either. Much of the labor unrest in baseball in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s resulted from ownership fighting back against the very idea of free agency. Now that the league has learned to live with it – and, in fact, appears to be thriving without a salary cap – there is no longer as compelling a case to be made for the owners to engage in no-holds-barred negotiation tactics.
Indeed, both MLB and the players union appear to place real value on maintaining a strong working relationship with one another. Commissioner Manfred, for instance, has stressed that maintaining a good relationship with the players is critically important in helping to grow the game.
At the same time, the two sides have been willing to work through a variety of different issues (including MLB’s new domestic violence policy, as well as changes to the Joint Drug Agreement) as they arise, rather than waiting for the next round of collective bargaining to discuss them. This reflects a mature bargaining relationship in which both parties are mutually committed to maintaining strong labor relations.
As a result, there is little to suggest that either side would risk jeopardizing MLB’s 21 straight years of labor peace in the coming negotiations, especially considering the relatively modest scope of issues that are likely to be on the table in collective bargaining.
That having been said, it is always possible that one side or the other could decide to dig in its heels on a particular issue. For instance, if MLB views an international draft as a precondition to any agreement, then the league could conceivably decide to lock players out once the current agreement expires next December, should the union refuse to agree to such a proposal in the interim. (A strike by the players would appear to be less likely, since they’ll presumably have either reached a new agreement, or else already have been locked out, by the time the 2017 season begins.)
Even then, however, the odds that such a work stoppage would actually threaten to extend into the season seem even more remote. Instead, it is much more likely that the two sides would reach some sort of compromise prior to Opening Day 2017, rather than risk allowing a work stoppage to endanger the sport’s growing popularity and financial strength.
This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t some difficult issues confronting the league and union in the next CBA. But fortunately for fans, as of today it appears unlikely that the 2016 collective bargaining process will disrupt the 2017 season.
Nathaniel Grow is an Associate Professor of Business Law and Ethics at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. He is the author of Baseball on Trial: The Origin of Baseball's Antitrust Exemption, as well as a number of sports-related law review articles. You can follow him on Twitter @NathanielGrow. The views expressed are solely those of the author and do not express the views or opinions of Indiana University.