Opinion

What do the players really want in the MLB standoff?

And are they asking for the impossible?

After baseball's owners went on a November spending bonanza, ostensibly signaling that the upcoming lockout of the players would be brief, very little has changed between the owners and the union. The two sides need to negotiate a new Comprehensive Bargaining Agreement (CBA) but have hardly spoken formally at all in more than two months. While MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred assured Thursday that Spring Training will start on time, it looks increasingly likely that the labor dispute is going to eat into the regular season schedule — or worse. Most concerning for fans is that the Major League Baseball Player's Association (MLBPA) does not appear to know whether it wants a bigger cut of the sport's revenue, or measures designed to make the on-field competition fairer.

The owners are largely satisfied with the status quo, leaving the MLBPA in the position of seeking much more substantial change than their counterparts across the table. Some of the terrain in this dispute is familiar, and progress has been made. The league has apparently agreed to a universal designated hitter rule and will eliminate the practice of attaching draft pick compensation for teams whose free agents sign with a different club. And the owners have implicitly acknowledged that "tanking" — deliberately putting a subpar team on the field to get a higher pick in the next draft — is a problem by acquiescing to some kind of NBA-style draft lottery. A compromise on raising the minimum player salary is well within reach.

Yet the talks are at a standstill, and last week the players rejected federal mediation, a move that can only be described as a PR nightmare. Then on Tuesday, ESPN published a revealing, and very puzzling, interview with Andrew Miller, a free agent reliever serving on the union's executive board. Miller identifies tanking as a major concern, but after saying that "we have major concerns about the competition throughout the league," Miller rejects both salary caps (to rein in spending by the sport's big market behemoths) and salary floors (to ensure that teams have to spend a certain amount of money on free agents). Most puzzlingly, he defends the current lack of either policy by claiming that "we've seen plenty of different teams in baseball win it or be successful." Uh, okay.

Is competitive balance really what the MLBPA cares about? It seems like for all the talk about tanking, the union cares less about competition and more about a certain class of players getting paid. The grim reality for the players is that the union's signature and hard-won achievement, unrestricted free agency, has declined in value dramatically for most players who stick around long enough to benefit from it. The sport has become a young man's game, with players peaking earlier and then seemingly going into much steeper decline in their 30s than they once did. And teams no longer seem terribly interested in signing those thirtysomethings.

The star players who reach free agency when they are relatively young — people like 27-year-old shortstop Corey Seager — are still getting paid handsomely. Last year, Seager signed a 10-year, $325 million contract with the Texas Rangers. Before the lockout, owners doled out more than a billion dollars in commitments to other stars of this year's free-agent class.

But in recent years, a lot of veteran free agents who would have been easy signings 10 years ago are going jobless, because teams prefer to fill those holes with minimum-salary talent from their own systems. Miller himself might be a victim of this problem. At 36, he's on the downslope of a long and successful career as a feared, late-inning relief pitcher, and his contract with the St. Louis Cardinals just expired. In the past, teams might have bet on the track record or a rebound; today, every team probably has players in the minors who could replicate Miller's mediocre 2021 at a fraction of the cost.

This is especially true for teams that need to rebuild. Miller isn't going to help a 75-win team get to the playoffs, and a draft lottery is unlikely to discourage teams from engaging in some version of tanking. Even if the first eight picks are in play (in other words, the worst team in baseball could draft eighth instead of being guaranteed the first pick as they were in the last CBA), teams are still likely to regard that as a better path back to competition than signing expensive players in their early 30s who might not contribute enough value to justify their salaries.

Part of the problem is the draft pick compensation attached to many non-elite free agents, which discourages potential suitors from signing such players. But here we come back to the inherent tension in the union's negotiating positions: Draft pick compensation was meant to be a competitive balance measure so that when small-market teams like the Kansas City Royals lose their free-agent players to the Yankees and Dodgers, they don't walk away with nothing.

The same goes for the union's insistence on offering players salary arbitration after their second, rather than their third, year in the majors. Yes, these players will make more money earlier in their careers, but at the cost of straining the budgets of small-market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, who need to identify every possible edge to compete with their better-funded competitors in the American League East division. Ditto for the union's strange position that it wants to reduce revenue sharing between high and low revenue clubs.

The players are right about the general principle: They deserve a fairer share of the sport's revenues. And solutions like a bonus pool for pre-arbitration players seem eminently ripe for compromises. But the players are currently doing a terrible job of communicating to the fans what this is all about, and some of their bargaining positions really are working at cross-purposes with one another.

One last factor for both the players and owners to consider is this: a labor stoppage that costs regular-season games is mind-bogglingly ill-timed. Most people have just lived through the most miserable two years of their lives, and baseball fans are desperately looking forward to the distraction of the nation's pastime. While both sides might have legitimate points to be made, the reality is that the sport is awash with cash from TV deals, and fans experiencing terrible hardship in the real world can hardly be expected to care whether people who make more than half-a-million dollars a year get a "cost of living" raise.

After the players' strike that ended the 1994 season, it took four years for the sport to get to pre-stoppage attendance levels. Even in 2019, with more baseball teams and more potential fans, fewer people went to baseball games than in 1993. With soccer gaining popularity, baseball has never been in more danger of falling into niche status like professional hockey, with potentially dire consequences for TV revenues and recruiting the next generation of fans and players.

Another long work stoppage would mean that everyone loses, on all counts. Owners and players need to swallow their pride, return to the table and get this fixed before it is too late.

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