MLB Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark spoke to the press today about the union’s goals in collective bargaining talks. Talks which, in a rare move, will soon take place, two years ahead of the current CBA’s expiration date.
Clark spoke of the need for a restoration of a “competitive environment,” referring to the epidemic of tear-down rebuilds and the perception that teams are “tanking” in order to cut payroll. Clark said that rebuilding teams that are noncompetitive hurt the industry — at the moment only one division leader has a lead of five games or fewer — and that he’d like the next CBA to cut down on the incentive for organizations to field non-competitive clubs.
Clark also called for “meaningful free agency,” saying that he wants to get players “something closer to their value as they are producing it.” That refers to the current dynamic in the game in which teams have increasingly relied on players with 0-6 years of service time. During the first three of those years the teams completely control player salaries and can pay them the minimum if they want. In years 3-6 they are arbitration eligible. Free agency, once a ticket to a big payday for a veteran, is now often not reached until a player is 30 or older, at which point teams have less interest in them than they once did.
Cracking either of those nuts is going to be tough. Major League Baseball and its owners once chafed at arbitration and free agency — each of which were championed by the MLBPA — but, for better or worse, clubs have learned to work within that system to their financial advantage. It’s hard to imagine what the players can offer the league in exchange for fundamental changes to a structure for which they once bargained. At the very least it’s hard to imagine what incentives would ever inspire teams to become more interested in older players with six or more years of service time than they currently are, which suggests that the best bet would be for the union to push for increased wages at the lower levels. Again: tall order.
As for the union’s leverage: they could trade away concessions the league is looking for with respect to multiple rules changes which have floated around for a couple of years, but those things, however much Rob Manfred wants them, don’t seem anywhere near as valuable as team control of players in their early productive years. The union’s ultimate power is a work stoppage, of course, but it remains to be seen if there is solidarity of sentiment for such a move among the players. All of this is harder to gauge given the fact that we’re over two years away from the expiration of the CBA.
Yet, talks will commence soon. Until they do, we’re all just guessing, really.