Wittenmyer: How to fix Cubs, MLB’s CBA issues in 3 easy steps

·9 min read

Wittenmyer: How to fix MLB, Cubs in 3 easy steps originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

We’re a week away from baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expiring without any sign that a new agreement is close.

And while White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf suggested last month that most of the progress in negotiations like this happen closer to the deadline, all signs point to MLB preparing to lock out players once the 11:59 p.m. deadline on Dec. 1 passes.

But it never had to get this far. Not if baseball owners had the vision and will to pay the price for a few obvious changes to fix some of the worst problems in the game and biggest issues causing the labor strife — issues also at the center of Cubs business practices that have left the big-revenue giants in a full-blown rebuild for the second time in a decade.

For now, few seem to expect the labor impasse to delay the 2022 season. Even baseball commissioner Rob Manfred last week downplayed the significance a lockout, which at this stage of negotiations is more of a leverage strategy than a sign of impending doom and gloom for next season.

But it will come with a freeze on offseason transactions; MLB already has moved up the tender deadline for arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration players on the 40-man roster to Nov. 30 in anticipation.

But for the will, there was a way to avoid all of this — and for Reinsdorf to get his desired trip to Disney World next week.

What’s more, the biggest points of contention and rank-and-file anger in collective bargaining in a generation — tanking, service-time manipulation and salary suppression — could be all but eliminated in just three easy steps.

Not that there's much chance of industry leaders doing it.

But if MLB ever finds the will, we have the way:

1. Eliminate the caps on amateur spending

The hard caps on draft-bonus allotments and international amateur bonus allotments — at a cost to clubs of severe penalties for violations — have had the direct, if unintended, consequence of driving the game’s tanking trend the past 10 seasons since they were implemented in 2012 two CBAs ago.

Unable to pay “over slot” bonuses to harder-to-sign players deeper in the draft and to pay unrestricted prices for international amateurs, competitive teams face fewer avenues for backfilling impact talent in their farm systems.

The two ways to increase the ability to spend on amateurs under the current rules are (1) to “earn” incrementally higher spending allotments by finishing incrementally closer to the bottom of the win-loss rankings among the 30 teams, or (2) to trade, in $250,000 increments, for international slot space from other teams. The latter method costs trade capital and is not allowed for draft-bonus allotments; the former method has the widest impact and can even be profitable — because tanking often saves more money at the front end of the process than it costs in the additional money spent on amateurs at the back end.

This is the “race to the bottom” that agent Scott Boras criticized during the general managers meetings two weeks ago.

And the greatest driver for that tanking — the amateur caps — is something that the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer regime recognized and bemoaned as the new restrictions hit them in the face at precisely the moment they took over Cubs baseball operations 10 years ago.

Epstein’s front office in Boston had for years been one of the handful in the majors to ignore slot “guidelines” from the commissioner’s office and sign whomever it drafted for whatever it chose to spend, regardless of draft position.

That meant a new plan with the new rules in Chicago. And part of that included becoming the first high-revenue team in history to intentionally tank full seasons.

(Don’t get us started on what’s beginning to look like Round 2).

With young talent increasingly considered the top commodity in the game, the quickest, easiest way to fix baseball’s tanking problem is to uncap the access to young talent.

2. Create a Super 5 status for free agents

The service-time manipulation issue that gained more notoriety in recent years with Kris Bryant’s brief, unjust demotion to Triple-A in 2015 that assured a seventh season of club control (and resulted in a failed grievance against the Cubs) will never be resolved by adjusting how many days it takes to qualify for a season played.

But using a percentage formula that doesn’t set a date or a predetermined number of roster days — similar to how Super 2 status is determined for arbitration-eligible players — might at least lower the incentive for manipulation.

To wit: 172 days on the big-league roster is considered by rule a full major-league season. Players much reach six full seasons to achieve free agent status.

So during the 186-day 2021 season, for example, a 15th day in the minors would assure that a player would not reach a full season of service time in 2021 (it took even fewer days in the minors to do this to Bryant in 2015).

Change the eligibility threshold to 170 or 160 or anything else, and manipulation just gets recalculated around the new number.

But consider the effect of a system that uses the Super 2 formula — ranking, at the end of every season, all the players with between, in this case, five and six years service time and then granting the top 22 percent free agency (or 20 percent, or 25, or 30, etc.).

Run the projection models all you want — as many teams do now to manipulate arbitration status.

Theoretically, variables in those projections would persist through most of the process — including the fact that collective bargaining agreements with the potential for rules changes expire on shorter (five-year) cycles.

Even best-projected efforts at manipulation, within stable sets of rules, would come with a potentially higher risk.

Hold a Kris Bryant — or a Vlad Guerrero Jr. or anyone else — in the minors for a couple extra weeks before a big-league debut, and what’s the big deal from a team standpoint?

But for a team trying to win in a given season, change two weeks to two months, and it might start to hurt. Not to mention the potential for even worse relations developing between team and player than the current system sometimes produces.

Might as well give Bryant the spot on the Opening Day roster he earned in the first place, right?

Right.

3. Tie the luxury-tax thresholds to industry revenues

Owners have sought CBA remedies to protect themselves from themselves when it comes to supposedly overpaying players since the dawn of free agency more than four decades ago, most notably seeking salary/payroll caps, which, in turn, became the historic non-starter of all non-starters for the union.

But after decades of labor peace, an increasingly fat-and-happy union of well-paid players fell asleep at the negotiating switch and allowed owner-friendly, salary-suppressing mechanisms into the last two CBAs.

Chief among them was an arbitrarily-set sequence of annual Competitive Balance Tax — or “luxury tax” — thresholds that call for increasing severity of penalties for exceeding various payroll levels and for violations in consecutive seasons.

Paired with the hard caps on amateur spending this soft cap supplies further incentive for tanking and is a significant driver for the slowing of free agent markets in recent years and the first reductions in the game’s average annual salaries (pre-pandemic) since owners were found guilty of collusion in the 1980s.

One major issue the union apparently failed to consider: the math.

The CBT thresholds were set with no apparent recognition of this era of record industry revenues on the strength of a massive jump in broadcast rights revenues — with every franchise now equipped to operate in the black and every franchise now valued at more than $1 billion each (the Cubs’ going from an $846 million purchase price in 2009 to Forbes-estimated value of $3.36 billion in 2021).

As industry revenues increased throughout the decade, in some years by 10 percent or more over the previous year, the first rung of luxury-tax thresholds increased exactly 3.2 percent, 1 percent, 3.6 percent, 0.97 percent and 0.96 percent for the five seasons of the CBA that expires Dec. 1 — after five years of similarly small percentage increases over the five-year term of the previous CBA.

Cubs executives knew what that meant for their ability to keep a 2016 champion together as soon as they saw the new CBA that went into effect in 2017, after having exceeded the threshold for the first time in 2016.

“If you look across the game,” Epstein said at the 2020 Cubs Convention, explaining the team’s lack of free agent activity, “the teams that won the World Series early in the CBA that have players who moved through the arbitration process and are making a lot of money in arbitration and who added free agents along the way — us, the Red Sox, the Astros — there’s a pattern which was somewhat anticipated.

“Once the CBA was announced, it was clear that for high-market teams, as you move deeper into the CBA, unless you got an opportunity to reset along the way, with maybe a year where you weren’t competitive at the trade deadline or something, it was going to be tough to squeeze additional talent on the roster.”

Not that the players will trust any accounting numbers the owners provide, but a negotiated formula for lifting the CBT thresholds in relation to revenues, maybe with third-party oversight, would fix that issue, loosen some of the recent squeeze on free agent markets and be more equitable for players.

It won’t do anything to restore the Cubs’ championship window anytime soon.

But those three easy steps would almost certainly get a labor deal done and keep the revenue increases flowing for both sides at the table — and maybe even launch a lengthy, new era of labor peace.

Not that the owners would budge on any of those three issues, no matter what good it might do for labor relations, public perception and the overall business of the game.

At least they’ll have plenty of time to think about it all once they lock out the players in a few days, freeze transactions and hang another labor cloud over spring training plans.

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