When you see the “we said, they said” press release exchanges in the media between MLB and the MLBPA concerning salaries in a fanless baseball world, it serves as a reminder that baseball’s biggest fight is actually the one on the horizon. By comparison, that fight might make the COVID-19 policy squabbling look like a nursery school shoving match.
Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement expires after the 2021 season, and long before the novel coronavirus altered the 2020 baseball landscape, players had real grievances they wished to see resolved in the next labor agreement. After two tepid winters of free agency — it did thaw a bit this last winter — and teams treating luxury tax thresholds as soft salary caps, players have expressed varying degrees of unhappiness with baseball’s current economics. Service time shenanigans like the Cubs swearing that Kris Bryant’s services were needed exactly one the day after a call-up would have otherwise resulted in free agency following the 2021 season are not conducive to good-faith negotiations between equal parties.
The players are no doubt going into these talks with a wish list of things they want. Some they’ll get, others they won’t. But the negotiation on both sides will be hard-fought; dealings between owners and players usually only go smoothly when the subject is taking away money from people with no voice at the table.
If I were the evil dictator of the MLBPA — I made myself the evil dictator of MLB last week when mixing up some new divisions — here are what my priorities would be for the next CBA. (I’ll let someone else answer the question of why I always label myself an evil dictator.)
Change the Revenue-Sharing Formula
When teams that receive significant revenue-sharing windfalls fail to invest that cash into payroll, the usual reaction is to simply beseech those teams to do so next time out of the goodness of their hearts. This plea generally goes unheeded because, as with most business entities, teams really like money, and thus, the course of action that results in the most money in the coffers tends to be the one teams go with.
The reason revenue-sharing money doesn’t go directly to players is that the system itself isn’t designed with that goal in mind. Generally speaking, governing bodies subsidize things they want more of and tax things they want less of. The way that baseball’s system of shared revenue/luxury tax is designed, MLB essentially makes increasing revenue less profitable for certain teams than it would be otherwise, while penalizing high payrolls. A team like the Pittsburgh Pirates, which never eclipsed $100 million even in its peak a few years ago, isn’t really financially incentivized to invest in its payroll.
To change that behavior, you have to change the incentives. Because as it is now, the Pirates really don’t get much of a benefit from, say, signing Yasiel Puig to a one-year, $10 million contract in a normal season.
If you want to encourage winning, at some point, you have to tie revenue directly to wins. As it is, only some sources of income are actually linked to a team winning baseball games. Baseball has a lot of shared revenue (national TV deals, international rights, MLB.TV, merchandising); changing how those dollars are distributed is an opportunity to make winning actually matter more. The Pirates aren’t interested in investing to get win 70 or 75 or 80 because by-and-large, those wins really don’t matter in either baseball or financial terms. Let’s tie some portion of shared revenue to actual wins (with an adjustment for market size). In an ideal world, if the Pirates or Marlins or Rays get as much dough from adding wins as the Yankees or Dodgers do, there’s an actual reason to invest in quality players other than fans just really, really wanting them to.
Solve Service Time
A lot of cheapness overlaps with being smart, but it’s hard to put playing service-time games with rookies into that bucket. The fundamental reason, of course, is that teams are not actually allowed to determine promotions based on service-time considerations. If they were, there’s no reason for this theater where teams would have to pretend that Kris Bryant isn’t as good as Mike Olt or that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. needs two weeks in the minors to be one of Toronto’s 25 best players, or that Nick Senzel had to spend a week in the minor to master center field. Teams could just say “Well, it’s smart to do this, and that’s that.”
The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to prove a team is willfully manipulating service time since you essentially need a team to have foolishly recorded its decision-makers saying the quiet part out loud. Bryant lost his grievance against the Cubs because, in essence, there wasn’t any direct evidence of nefarious intent beyond what we can infer from their actions. As the arbitrator, Mark Irvings, wrote, “the debatable wisdom of that decision cannot be the grounds for finding that Epstein lacked a basis in fact or reason for keeping Bryant with Iowa until April 17.”
Establishing a new bright line for when service time starts just moves the problem because there will always be a compelling financial motive for keeping players on the minor league side of that line.
So what I suggest is that we strengthen 6.000 years of service time as the free agency line. Of course, it’s impractical for players to become free agents in the middle of the season when they hit six years. What I’m suggesting is some form of deferred free agent compensation for the portion of service time above 6.000 years when a player is prevented from reaching free agency.
The Cubs want to manipulate it so that Bryant can’t hit the open market until he collects 171 additional days of service time that is required for free agency? Fine, but make the Cubs — or a future team in this situation — compensate Bryant for those 171 extra days. Whatever the average annual value of his next contract is calculated to be, force the Cubs to pay Bryant 171/180th of that amount. In other words, treat Bryant as if he were under team control for nine days and signed a team-exclusive free agent contract for the final 171 days of 2021.
Getting this will be a challenge. Maybe you don’t get 100% of the AAV, but instead 80% or 50% or 30%. But set the standard that players will receive compensation for those extra days of service time, and you reduce the incentives for these games, which are, quite honestly, just as bad for baseball as a sport as they are for the players; who wants to watch a sport in which teams aren’t trying to put their best team on the field?
More Money for Young Players, not Marginal Veterans
Much of the consternation in the spring of 2019 about unsigned free agents revolved around veterans like Adam Jones and Neil Walker having to settle for minimal, one-year contracts. I think that this missed the point entirely. Under any baseball labor configuration, whether more or less just than the present one, it was unlikely that big deals would go to players like Jones and Walker. Teams believe less in the value of marginal veterans now than ever before in baseball history, and you can’t un-ring that particular bell.
A lot of the growth of baseball’s salary pie historically was the result of teams being fundamentally rather awful at evaluating which players helped them win games. Gary Matthews doesn’t get a five-year contract after his age-31 season in today’s game. Jeromy Burnitz doesn’t almost become an Oriole in 2005 today, and the Brewers don’t sign Jeffrey Hammonds because they’re unaware of what park factors are.
That’s not to say that there aren’t still some pretty wacky mistakes today — hello, Eric Hosmer signing! — but baseball’s front offices are generally far more professional and competent than they were 25 years ago. It should be no surprise to anyone that I don’t think much of how the Royals or Rockies are run, but I’d maintain that they’d both be well above the average for a front office in 1990. Remember when the Yankees signed Dave Winfield without understanding a very basic contract provision?
Instead, try to get more money for players who have little say over their own finances. With a $1 million minimum salary, Ozzie Albies might have been at least a little bit less inclined to sell his prime for pennies on the dollar. I understand why the MLBPA, both philosophically and legally, doesn’t fight for minor league salaries, but players on optional assignment are, in fact, MLBPA members, too. And the minimum for a minor-league player on the 40-man roster is still an embarrassingly low $46,000. That’s the ground salary fights should be fought on; teams actually want those players, even if they have to pay $200,000 for them instead of $46,000.
Negotiate Real Penalties for Sign-Stealing and Video-Cheating
No Houston Astros or Boston Red Sox players are being punished for their roles in L’affaire de Trash Can or this week’s latest episode, Let’s Just Throw the Video System Dude Under the Bus. Players on other teams aren’t happy that Astros players weren’t suspended — in my eyes, their offenses were far more egregious than those committed by Red Sox players — but the lack of punishment is the MLBPA hasn’t agreed to rules on player discipline. Yes, MLB and Rob Manfred deserve a large helping of the blame for the weak, arbitrary follow-up to Boston’s 2017 warning, but there was nothing preventing players from bringing this up on their own. And with a player-proposed system for fines and punishment, perhaps we wouldn’t have the invariably lousy result of the commissioner, an employee of the owners, being the central authority on player discipline in yet another area.
There are plenty of other issues for players to bring up before signing the next CBA, and even if they pursued all four of these goals, it’s far from a guarantee that they’ll get the whole pie. But I think moving in this general direction would help create an environment in which players aren’t largely being left out of the gains from baseball’s growing revenue pie. They’re the ones playing the baseball, after all.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.