MLB lockout: There's no way to force team owners to put wins over dollars

You can’t legislate wanting to win. And you can’t mandate recklessness.

That’s the problem with the negotiations that may eventually end the MLB lockout. Well, one of them anyway. The first problem is the owners’ ideological resistance to yielding economic influence to the players. Then there’s the vast disparity in the money numbers. That’s a big one. But even if they could overcome those and reach a mutually tolerable compromise, I’m not confident that a new CBA would have the effect that it purports to.

Among the oft-articulated concerns — originating from the players, but one that was willingly embraced by the league — is the need for more “competitive integrity.” Less tanking. Everyone should try to win. Both because trying, or at least the appearance of it, is necessary to the intangible psychic scaffolding of the sport and because it generally manifests as money spent.

This hypothetical ideal in which the financial architects of each team are approaching every season with equal ambition is used to justify all sorts of policy proposals on both sides — the luxury tax, a draft lottery and a policy to prevent service time manipulation. But that ideal is just that: a hypothetical. The implicit assumption that winning is the ultimate carrot is just not true in MLB, and hasn't been for a while, if it ever was.

The problem isn’t that baseball is a business; the problem is that the business of baseball has become increasingly divorced from the on-field product.

People with more economic expertise than I have written about this extensively — the way centralized revenue and broadcast deals and streaming rights and real estate developments around ballparks allow for robust revenue that’s detached from actual attendance. Soon there will be betting opportunities and sportsbooks in stadiums and, remember, even the bad teams are good investments.

This is not to say that winning isn’t still a goal, or even beneficial for the bottom line — gate receipts and in-stadium sales still account for a significant portion of total revenue. Winning efficiently is still the pinnacle; but with money also being made in losing, the efficiency part takes precedence.

Consider the two proposals designed to prevent teams from manipulating a player’s service time by holding him in the minors longer than necessary to gain an extra year of team control on the back end. It’s one of the rare areas in the CBA where the league and union are not simply arguing over numbers, they have different ideas about the structure of such a policy.

Which one is better is not as relevant here as the simple fact that there isn’t an obvious solution — something people involved readily admit — and both proposals create a new set of loopholes that could be exploited. Which is just another way of restating the original problem: Service time manipulation is an act of bad faith, it’s following the letter of the law but not the spirit of the game. There’s nothing in the outgoing CBA about service time manipulation, it is a practice front offices developed by hacking the document’s language for economic advantage at the expense of fielding the best players as early as possible.

And if front offices are trying to do that, it’s almost impossible to stop them. Because if winning isn’t an incentive to spend, what is?

MLB owners have shown they prefer spending as efficiently as possible over pursuing World Series titles all out.  (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MLB owners have shown they prefer spending as efficiently as possible over pursuing World Series titles all out. (Photo by David J. Griffin/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In a column for The Athletic, Ken Rosenthal explored all the different policy changes the players association could pursue in these negotiations. But at every turn, there’s a pitfall: What looks like a path toward clear gains could create new ways of cutting costs at the expense of other players and the product.

Raising the major-league minimum salary would be a huge win for the majority of the union, and especially its most underpaid members. Except some agents believe raising the minimum “might only accelerate the trend of teams spending less on the middle class, making it more difficult for aging veterans to secure major-league contracts and potentially driving some out of the game.”

Earlier arbitration looks like a long shot, something the league has thus far not even been willing to discuss, perhaps because it is considered by some to be “the most significant gain the players could make.” And even then some people are “worried that the clubs would exploit such a revision, offering contracts only to the best two-plus players and flooding the free-agent market by non-tendering less talented members of the class.”

You can’t write a CBA strict enough to prevent teams from circumnavigating the intent if simply not spending is out there as an option. (And, it is. A shared revenue, floor-cap system that introduces new problems like what counts as baseball-related revenue is a nonstarter for the union.)

I’m sure what’s really happening in all these cases is that teams are assigning value to different propositions — to an extra month of a player now versus a year of him later, to the likely outcome of arbitration versus starting the clock on another prospect. There are numbers attached in each case that correspond to dollars that are the real motivator. Money, not wins, is the pressure point.

Which is the union’s thinking behind proposals targeting the revenue sharing system. Part of its proposal is to reduce the net revenue awarded to small-market teams — in the wake of filing multiple grievances against some of them for not using the funds to benefit the on-field product — to limit one of the ways that it’s lucrative to languish in mediocrity. The other part involves implementing a system by which small-market teams can earn — and lose — revenue-sharing money by growing their local revenue. Craig Edwards, who now works for the union, explained in detail (and with helpful charts) how a similar system tied to wins could work as a tanking disincentive. In the union’s proposal, local revenue is used as a proxy for fielding the kind of team that people will buy tickets to see.

It’s an interestingly literal tactic — essentially slashing budgets if teams don’t make use of the money and bribing them to spend with the lure of bonuses — but it’s one the league has thus far refused to engage with. Revenue sharing — like the reserve clause and earlier arbitration — is an area MLB has maintained it is unwilling to touch in these negotiations.

To some extent, this isn’t a problem so much as it is a clear-eyed understanding of reality. MLB is a closed system playing a zero-sum game. All 30 baseball teams can’t win at the same time and the smart people in charge of each wouldn’t be very good at their jobs if they ignored that fact. Are teams tanking for draft picks in a way that could be thwarted with the implementation of a lottery for the top several spots? Or are they just out of contention before the season starts and aware of it?

Why try — and here that is a euphemism for “spend” — for an extra couple wins when the top of your division is already spoken for? In fact, why try — and again that is a euphemism for “spend” — for an extra couple wins when you think you’ve got that top spot locked down by virtue of everyone else’s lack of effort.

Very smart person and president of a Los Angeles Dodgers team that has managed enviable sustained success, Andrew Friedman famously said, "If you're always rational about every free agent, you will finish third on every free agent."

Extrapolate that far enough and you realize that if teams were always rational about every season, they would rarely go all out. It takes a reckless abandon — the kind that comes from wanting to win at all cost — to make a blockbuster move or build a dynasty.

There’s some of that in baseball, but not enough. And that kind of thing can’t be created by a collective bargaining agreement.