MLB and MLBPA are Headed for a Stoppage – How Can They Get it Right?

The MLB and MLBPA seem to be headed toward a lockout. Here are some ideas to prevent that.

The system is broken. It simply can’t stay like this and the CBA must become fair to everyone. Some just can’t compete or worse can’t ever reach the heights of the profession. These are all statements that we fans wish Bob Nutting was screaming from the rooftop every time the CBA negotiations are broached. Unfortunately, this is a sampling of the player’s opinions, rather than the owners.

Fairness is not a guarantee and if you have been a fan of any major sport prior to say 1965, you remember a much different world. Players were drafted and played for what the team felt fair market value until such time as they felt you had outlived your usefulness and or your value in a trade had peaked. While many remember these as the glory days, and there is something very beautiful about players spending the majority of their career in one city, wearing one uniform, the fact is this system simply wasn’t fair to anyone but the owners.

It’s so hard to feel bad for a group of people who have the potential to make $400 million in a decade, but the percentage of those who do is small and the percentage of teams that can afford to pay them is even smaller. As the league moves more toward young and affordable talent while emphasizing analytics, veteran players have seen their ability to earn in free agency decrease.

For the first time in over 25 years we face the first real possibility, and depending who you talk to, probability of a work stoppage or lockout in MLB. If this happens, I think it’s safe to assume the Pirates won’t stand up for the small market clubs, and bluntly, I don’t expect any of the others to break ranks either.

Why you might ask? Why would these clubs who struggle to cobble together a competitive team once a decade not want to tell the big boys to make some changes? Easy, money. They make plenty as is and rocking the boat will undoubtedly take some of their corporate welfare from them.

So, what DO the sides want?

The Players Want

  • Free agency to start after five years
  • Arbitration to start after two years
  • Minimum salary raised
  • Luxury Tax Raised

The Owners Want

  • Nothing to change

The only real leverage the players have is themselves. The MLBPA has lost the last two negotiations, and rather handily. MLB has no incentive to give back any of what they’ve gained short of overt concern for the court of public opinion. One area the players might actually have legitimate beef is the luxury tax level. This past season the penalty cap was set at $210 million and more teams are looking at it adversely. Even the Yankees and Dodgers went to great lengths to avoid hitting the mark, although the Yankees never dwell  below the line for long. Luxury percentage has not risen nearly as fast as the revenue, and the players have taken notice. Biggest problem for the players is convincing people to be outraged about greedy billionaires and side with greedy millionaires. 

Rob Manfried has hinted at some things I never thought I would see for the sport, even going so far as to say the economic situation in baseball may not work anymore. Leading some to interpret this as a foot in the door for a full-blown salary cap as opposed to the perceived version they currently employ.

 For the Pirates, there are real things to be concerned about. Should MLB decide to concede on some of the smaller points the MLBPA is angling for such as arbitration and free agency being moved up, it could make even more difficult the prospect of building a team that can compete for a window. On the other hand, it could force their hand and make doing business on the cheap impossible to do. Imagine knowing right now Brian Reynolds is a free agent in four years and arbitration starts after this season. Great for the player, but he becomes much more costly, much sooner. It could lead to increasing the feeling many already experience that the Pirates are simply a farm system for the big boys.

Many fans have the false hope that a “good” owner of a small market team would crusade to implement a salary cap in an effort to win or at least improve his club’s chances at winning, but reality dictates that should a cap be implemented, many clubs like the Pirates would indeed have a better chance of winning, but potentially fail to make anywhere near the profits they currently do. On top of that they’d be fighting a two-front war as the players are also anti cap. A singular voice would easily be shot down so at the very least a group of these clubs would need to band together and find a way to not have it ping the profits of the other owners or worse MLB as a whole.

I like to live in the grey areas. I rarely think either side is 100% correct, and to that end I’d like to propose some ideas that could help both sides reach a little closer to their goals and maybe, just maybe, even help the game in the process.

My Comprises and Ideas

Salary Cap & Basement – There isn’t anything new here, at least not on the surface. I’m suggesting the league institute a salary cap, one so high it seems out of reach. 250 Million to be specific. For context, had this been an issue 20 years ago this outlandish cap may have been set at 60 Million. For the basement, whatever figure the revenue sharing sits at, is the basement plus 25%. This would force owners to at least spend league minimum. Over time as salaries rise the league would have to increase the cap to address the increase in over all revenue and player/owner percentages. This would help by giving the owners a bit of cost certainty, the players a larger slice of the pie, and deliver some much-needed competitive balance over time. This wouldn’t be perfect but once you institute a cap, they are bloody hard to get rid of which is exactly what this league needs. The Pirates would be able to compete on a much more even slate through the years as you’d have to grandfather in previous contracts and these types of caps take time to institute and more to take effect. 

Ability to Trade Picks – This seems so basic, and that’s partially because much like the salary cap, we see in all the other major sports in North America, MLB is decades behind the times. This would enable teams to supercharge rebuilding efforts and put together enticing packages even when the club is devoid of moveable personnel. There is no saying you still can’t demand the Dodgers give you Gavin Lux, but you might be enticed by a first round and second round pick in 2021. This would create a bit more fluidity in player movement and help to squash the 4-5-year rebuilding plans that have become so prevalent.

Add the DH to the NL – I can’t think of one other sport that has two conferences with different rules. Imagine if in the NFL, the AFC was just like you see today, but the NFC only allowed 30-yard passes. Immediately there would be defensive benefits and offensive restrictions. Teams wouldn’t draft that guy with a cannon for an arm, they’d get a scrambler or a system thrower. Then when they play in the Super Bowl every other year one team would be forced to play a different game. It’s time for this to be settled and as an olive branch to the players union I say give in and adopt the DH league wide. Sorry Mr. Brault, Mr. Brown, and Mr. Walk.

Increase pay for Minor League Players – The players want this, and quite frankly as fans we should too. Here’s why, the barrier to entry in MLB is too great. Even a skyrocket prospect can stare down the barrel at three years of living off little more than the signing bonus they received upon being drafted. One catastrophic injury away from never realizing their dream and never getting paid. Like it or don’t, not every athlete plays the sport they loved the most growing up, they choose the quickest path to stardom and a paycheck. Baseball is far from the fastest and they would do well to make it a lucrative choice much earlier on. Kyler Murray is the most recent example, he chose an immediate paycheck and a short career over a signing bonus and 4 years of riding busses and eating McDonalds to maybe, hopefully, one day make big money.

 Not every player will make it, that’s just reality, but MLB needs to at least make it a more attractive option. This would have no bearing on the overall payroll but could have big impact on the types of talent coming into the league. This isn’t a Babe Ruth sport anymore. Rare is the Prince Fielder or Matt Adams going to survive.

Eliminate Super 2 – Its antiquated, it forces teams to make bad, non-baseball decisions, and it’s just wrong. Kris Bryant is in the midst of feeling this rule’s wrath. By the time he reaches free agency he will have played 6 years in the league without signing a single contract that wasn’t brought before an arbiter. Now this isn’t poor Kris, the man just reached agreement on a one year 18.6-Million-dollar deal with the Cubbies, but he will also turn 29 this year and has beaten up his body badly over the past 4 seasons. He can get one bigger contract in his life and I would bet most offers won’t be more than 5 years. That is just not right, and one major complaint the players are completely correct about. This would force clubs like the Pirates to make choices based on baseball, not future finances.

Introduce Restricted Free Agency – This model exists in the NHL and it works quite well. I would institute this in place of the current arbitration system. It works like this, when you come to the majors you play your rookie contract out just as you would before. If a team wants to avoid the RFA process they can extend an offer just as they do now and try to buy out those years. This would be a two-year window and the team needs to place a qualifying offer on the table. The player can either accept it or negotiate further while other teams have a chance to make an offer. The current team gets a chance to match or let the player go in exchange for a draft selection nearest to their draft position from the new club. This could open doors for young talent to be able to get the pay they’ve earned earlier and creates a situation where highly-drafted players would find it harder to cavalierly leave the team that drafted them. Giving up a first-round pick is a tough ask to acquire anyone. A shrewd GM could use it as a way to get nice return for players that haven’t quite reached the level they foresaw as well.

Put in Max Salary Rules – The NBA has a form of this and admittedly it’s easier to pull in a league where rosters are top heavy and only 11 or 12 deep. But a modified version like max $35 million per year contract, with a caveat that the current team can offer up to $5 million more than any other club might start to rebuild the trust with fan bases across the country as their homegrown stars would potentially stay more frequently. $35 million is rare air as we speak, but I believe in instituting things like this more for the future than right now. It’s like buying a car and the dealer comes in to the negotiating room with a number $115 bucks more than you said you budgeted. You want the car so you think to yourself, I can come up with that. Then you go home and beat yourself up over it, future money never seems as costly as current money. The players could also be enticed that capping the salary for any one player will help some of the lower tier players make more as I’d never institute this without a functioning cap and floor system.

I’m not a corporate lawyer and I’m not pretending many of these ideas are terribly original, but MLB and MLBPA have a real chance here to hit the reset button a bit. If they do this right, interest in the game from the youth of our country could start to return, nothing gets kids interested like a winner. Note all the rinks that popped up all over Pittsburgh in the early 90s. Maybe these ideas won’t work, I’ll take any of them over the current system that we know doesn’t. The NFL has four playoff teams left, one from Green Bay, Kansas City, San Francisco and Nashville. The salary cap is reason number one that three of these clubs have survived, let alone reached the conference finals. 

Every league has their issues, some do a whole lot more to try to fix them than others. MLB, we’re looking at you.

Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007