We've reached a contentious point in the relationship between Major League Baseball's players and owners. The tensions have risen so fast and so furiously following consecutive winters of jilted free agents, that many fear a work stoppage is inevitable once the current collective bargaining expires in December 2021, and perhaps even sooner.
But a new report has given us some hope, slight as it might be, that finding common ground is at least possible if the two sides are willing to sit down, talk, and even more importantly, listen.
ESPN's Jeff Passan reports that's exactly what happened when San Diego Padres stars Manny Machado and Eric Hosmer recently took owner Ron Fowler out to dinner. The players were there to talk business, the report says. The business of winning. To do that, they felt Fowler had to break away from a common practice used by his fellow owners, so they made a proposal.
Or perhaps it was a demand. Either way, the players reportedly lobbied for the franchise's top prospect, 20-year-old shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr., to make the opening day roster.
As we saw Thursday, Tatis was on the roster and in the lineup, making him the youngest player to start on opening day since Adrian Beltre in 1999 and the youngest Padre ever to do so.
Tatis' presence was felt too. With his 2-for-3 afternoon, he became the youngest player to record a multi-hit game on opening day since a 19-year-old Robin Yount in 1975.
But is this story too good to be true? That’s what Fowler is saying in light of ESPN’s report.
Owner denies the report
Speaking to The Athletic on Saturday, Fowler emphatically denied ESPN’s report.
“There was no dinner,” Fowler said. “There was no request for a dinner.”
“This is something that [general manager] A.J. [Preller] and I had been talking about at, let’s say, 40,000 feet, for quite some time. What’s going to happen in baseball, what’s going to happen in terms of the minimum three years of (salary arbitration), and do we think it’s going to change. This goes back to the 2016 collective bargaining negotiations. And I feel that not only are we seeing things change in terms of free agents, but people are signing long-term extensions. I think there’s a lot of the environment that’s going to change before the 2021 negotiations for 2022 and beyond.”
Fowler added that the decision was entirely up to general manager A.J. Preller and the baseball ops. team he’s assembled.
“(Preller) said, ‘Our people feel that Tatis is playing his way onto the 25-man (roster),'” Fowler recalled. “He’s very democratic in terms of getting input. I said, ‘Well, how do you feel?’ And he said, ‘Well, so do I. I feel that he deserves to be on the Opening Day roster.’
“We talked about it, and frankly it was his decision. There are ramifications in terms of control and all those things, but based upon his input, based upon his feeling that that would be our strongest team, he made the recommendation to do it, and we agreed with it. So, it was totally coming from A.J., coming from baseball ops.”
Going against the grain
What makes the story so interesting is that it deals with one of the biggest issues separating the players and owners. That being the issue of service time manipulation.
Teams have long gone out of their way to keep major-league ready prospects in the minor leagues in order to prevent their service time clocks from starting.
The benefit to the team is money saved and a guarantee they’ll be able to control the player one extra year.
There is no benefit to the player or the game itself. Both are robbed of opportunities. The player loses time to grow at the highest level. The game loses time to highlight a new star.
It was assumed Tatis would take that same track. Especially after the Padres guaranteed $444 million to Machado and Hosmer the last two offseasons. For a team that doesn’t typically shell out big money, it was easy to picture them cutting an obvious corner to save a few bucks.
But Fowler isn’t doing that. Now he wants the fans to know, or at least believe, that the decision was motivated by baseball and baseball only. Not everyone will buy in. Not with a group of owners who are driving down salaries while raking in huge profits. And not with a league that awards a trophy to the team that pays the least in arbitration.
There’s plenty to doubt given the recent trends, but on some levels it does feel like the players and owners know big changes are coming in 2022. Changes that will certainly impact, and perhaps even override decisions being made right now.
Wherever the truth lies, there can be no doubt that some interesting times and interesting discussions are coming for the league and the union.
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