Source: MLB labor talks to resume after 42-day break
NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball and the players’ association are scheduled to meet Thursday, ending a 42-day break in negotiations that began when management started a lockout, the sport’s first work stoppage since 1995.
With the scheduled start of spring training five weeks away, management was planning to make a new proposal to players, several people familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press on Tuesday. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcement was made.
The sides last met Dec. 1 in Irving, Texas, a brief session that broke off hours before the collective bargaining agreement expired. Since then, negotiations have been limited to peripheral issues. The meeting Thursday is scheduled to be conducted by video conference.
MLB payrolls dropped 4% in 2021 compared to the league’s last full season in 2019, and the $4.05 billion total was the lowest in a fully completed year since 2015.
Players have asked for liberalized eligibility for free agency and salary arbitration, raising the luxury tax threshold from $210 million to $245 million, changes to spark increased competition among clubs and measures to address what the union claims is service time manipulation.
Management has offered to increase the tax threshold to $214 million, to extend the designated hitter to the National League and to eliminate draft pick compensation for losing players in free agency, a provision that has existed in various forms since 1976.
Both sides would increase the minimum salary, players from $570,500 to $775,000 this season and management to a series of tiers: $600,000 for players with less than a year of big league service, $650,000 for at least one but less than two and $700,000 for at least two.
Negotiators also have discussed an NBA-style draft lottery, but management would limit it to the top three teams and the union would expand it to the top eight. Players would reward small-market teams with additional draft picks for success, such as making the playoffs or finishing with a winning record.
Retired pitcher David Cone, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee during the 1994-95 strike, views the issues as less contentious than during the previous stoppage, when players fought off management’s proposal for a salary cap.
“I think there is the framework for a deal. Back in the mid-90s there was two completely different frameworks,” Cone, now an analyst for the Yankees’ YES Network and ESPN, said. “They are within the same framework: Where does the luxury tax fall? Can the players address control issues and competitive teams instead of tanking? Or service time manipulation certainly is an issue. So control issues on the player side, but the framework I believe is there for a deal. At some point I believe it’s going to happen.”
Baseball’s ninth work stoppage began Dec. 2, its ninth since 1972 but first since the 7 1/2-month strike in 1994-95.
Spring training is scheduled to start Feb. 16 in Florida and Arizona, and opening day is set for March 31.
With the need for at least three weeks of spring training and time for players to arrive and go through COVID protocols, an agreement by about March 5 is needed for an on-time start to the season.
A bigger bite at the apple. The average major league salary has dropped 6.4% since 2017, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, MLB has seen record revenues, topping out at $10.7 billion in 2019. The players want to level the playing field.
Doing so will require a massive restructuring of an economic system that disadvantages less-experienced players by requiring three years of major league service to be eligible for salary arbitration and six for free agency. But that isn’t even the players’ biggest gripe.
The root of the issue, according to many players, is what Max Scherzer described Wednesday as “a competition problem.” Players believe not enough teams are actively trying to win — and therefore not paying big salaries — because the CBA rewards the worst teams with the highest amateur draft picks and the most money to sign them. The number of 95-loss teams rose from three in 2011 and four in 2012 to eight in 2018 and six this year.
“Adjustments have to be made in order to bring out the competition,” Scherzer said in a Zoom call to announce his record contract with the New York Mets. “As players, that’s absolutely critical to us to have a highly competitive league. When we don’t have that, we have issues.”
Two words: expanded playoffs.
The owners proposed a 14-team field, according to the New York Post, after nine seasons with a 10-team format. The move would increase revenues from ticket sales and especially television deals and put more money in everyone’s pocket.
But the players are concerned that granting more teams entry into the postseason would further disincentivize owners from spending. If teams can get into the playoffs with 85 wins rather than 90, some may attempt to compete with a lower payroll.
Manfred is hyper-focused on on-field changes, such as a pitch clock, that will make games more enjoyable to watch. But he said Thursday that those issues are being cast aside for now to keep the focus on economics.
The owners are mostly pleased with the status quo. But given their appetite for expanded playoffs, the players likely will withhold their stamp of approval in return for something substantial, such as a modification of the draft system or free agency based on factors other than service time.
Some owners may get antsy the longer they’re unable to sell tickets for next season. But it would seem far more difficult to unify 1,200 players — many of whom don’t stay in the majors long enough to ever cash in on the millions available in free agency — than 30 billionaire owners.
The players stuck together last year in demanding 100% of their salaries for every game they played during the 60-game schedule. And to hear Scherzer tell it, they are resolved to see this through, too, regardless of whether they make $600,000 per year or $43.3 million, his new annual salary from the Mets.
“We’re absolutely committed to doing that,” said Scherzer, who serves on the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee. “When I hear every player, whether young or old, they’re all saying the same thing, clubhouse to clubhouse. It’s not just me that thinks this. It’s everybody. It’s obvious to all the players.”
Scherzer added that the players have been girding for a fight since the ratification of the last CBA, and the union has assembled “a pretty good war chest” over the last five years to assist middle- and lower-tier players in the event that a stoppage drags on.
Yep. Consider the back-and-forth rhetoric as the lockout began.
Manfred accused the players of making an “aggressive set of proposals” that are “bad for competitive balance” because they would make it more difficult for small-market teams to compete. He also claimed the players rejected concessions by the owners to increase young players’ salaries, eliminate draft-pick compensation tied to free agency, create a universal designated hitter, and create a draft lottery similar to the NBA.
“We made a proposal [Wednesday] that, if it had been accepted, I believe would have provided a pretty clear path to make an agreement,” Manfred said.
In a separate news conference Thursday, Clark disagreed with that characterization.
“From the outset, it seems as if the league has been more interested in the appearance of bargaining than bargaining itself,” Clark said.
So, no, a new agreement won’t be hammered out in a few days, which explains why so many free agents rushed out between Black Friday and Cyber Monday to sign contracts. Teams dished out eight- and nine-figure deals like leftover stuffing and cranberry sauce. The total outlay in November was roughly $1.7 billion.
There’s plenty of time before either side begins to lose money and too many fundamental issues at stake for the future of the sport to rush this process. But if there isn’t a CBA in place before, say, Super Bowl LVI, it’ll be time to activate the DEFCON levels.
FILE - Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks during a news conference in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Dec. 2, 2021. Major League Baseball and the players’ association are scheduled to meet Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022, in the first negotiations between the parties since labor talks broke off Dec. 1. The planning of the meeting was disclosed to The Associated Press by a person familiar with the negotiations who spoke on condition of anonymity because no announcement was made. (AP Photo/LM Otero, File)