Thursday, April 30, 2020
the necessary Evils of MLB’s contingency plan fOr a canceled seAson
Thursday’s deal, which was first reported by Jeff Passan of ESPN, includes a $170 million salary advance for April and May, which players will be able to keep if the season is canceled altogether. According to Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, players will accrue a full year of service time if they’re on the roster or injured list for the entirety of a shortened season. If there is no season, players will earn as much service time for 2020 as they compiled in 2019. After the Dodgers absolutely fleeced the Red Sox for Mookie Betts, they could lose the 2018 AL MVP to free agency without his ever playing a meaningful game in Dodger blue. In these dark times, it’s worth taking a moment to chuckle at this Gogolian twist of fate.
The league now has the right to shorten the 2020 draft to five rounds and the 2021 draft to 20 rounds, down from the usual 40, and can push back the international amateur signing periods in the next two years from the customary July start date until the following January.
In the event that the season is canceled—a possibility that gets harder to ignore with each passing day—owners will avoid their worst-case scenario: a season with no incoming revenue but more than $4 billion in payroll obligations. The MLBPA has given up its right to sue for lost wages if the whole season is written off.
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It’s good to see that the league and the union have come together to confront head-on the possibility that there will be no baseball in 2020. A deal like this was necessary, as evidenced by the fact that it came together so quickly when labor tensions were at their highest in the sport in almost 20 years. This is the most momentous accord the league and union have reached since the most recent CBA was signed in December 2016. And in many ways this agreement is reminiscent of the 2016 CBA.
This is—or was supposed to be—my fifth season covering baseball at The Ringer, in which time I’ve published thousands of opinions about baseball. Just by virtue of volume, I’ve been wrong a lot. It happens in this job, and all you can do is learn what you can and try to do better next time. But in the past five years, the miss that bothers me most was my immediate analysis of the 2016 CBA. At the time, I thought it was a solid deal for the MLBPA. The luxury tax threshold went up, the qualifying-offer system got a little more relaxed, and I thought it paved the way for a new era of high spending by contending teams.
I anticipated the owners would operate in good faith; almost immediately, they began doing anything but. And while I noted that veteran players had once again sold minor leaguers and amateurs up the river, I did not immediately recognize how shortsighted and callously fratricidal the MLBPA had been. The longer the 2016 CBA remained in force the more ways powerful people and organizations found to transfer profits upstream and dump risk downstream.
So while the MLBPA’s advance looks good at first glance, it’s being divided based on how established the players are as big leaguers. And while players like Betts and J.T. Realmuto will reach free agency on time no matter what, you’d have to be an utter fool to think teams will just pick up where they left off and start flinging around $200 million contracts again. Massively profitable teams have cried poor time and again for decades. Now that MLB’s ownership ranks have been infiltrated and informed by shortsighted private equity types, and now that there will be actual operating losses, free agents below the very top tier could once again be left out in the cold, as they were in recent offseasons.
Moreover, the service-time concession—the MLBPA’s biggest win here—is a total kick in the nuts to players who didn’t accrue a full season in 2019 but were slated to in 2020: Bo Bichette, Yordan Álvarez, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and others. That goes double for players without guaranteed contracts who were set to debut this year: Nick Madrigal, Casey Mize, Alec Bohm, and so on. Maybe this was the only way to get a deal done, but if the season is lost, the system in place would massively favor older (and more highly paid) players over rookies who are just establishing themselves.
And in keeping with the MLBPA’s conduct in the past several CBA negotiations, minor league and amateur players have been hung out to dry. (MLB doesn’t have to hold a truncated draft, but there’s no financial incentive for them not to at this point.) Last year, bonus slots for sixth-round draft picks went up as high as $300,000, while players drafted in the 11th round or later could make $125,000 without going over slot. According to Jon Heyman, anyone not picked in a five-round draft would have their signing bonus—the only money over minimum wage that a player can stand to make before reaching the majors—capped at $20,000. And in the hours before the deal was finalized, ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel reported that whatever draft bonuses did get paid out could be heavily deferred over three years.
With so little financial incentive to go pro, we could see a cascade of talented college prospects return to campus, and an unprecedented percentage of top high school seniors could play college ball. This could swamp college programs that are already struggling to figure out how to accommodate seniors who were granted an extra year of eligibility when the 2020 season was cut short.
Shortening the next two drafts would reduce the pool of available minor league players, meaning the death knell for dozens of minor league franchises who’d also be forgoing gate revenue while not enjoying MLB’s billions of dollars in cash reserves and available credit. MLB has been on a crusade lately to eliminate dozens of minor league teams—the only affordable source of live baseball for millions of American fans. What a convenient excuse this would be to finally pull the plug.
For tens of thousands of aspiring ballplayers, the price of chasing a major league dream is now quite clearly years of near poverty. Thousands of jobs in game operations and even scouting will likely go up in smoke as well. But at least a few older players will now have the right to test, without delay, what should be the most barren and inhospitable free agent waters since the Messersmith case. Enjoy signing a one-year show-me deal on Valentine’s Day.
Too frequently in our society, we see compromise as honorable, even when that compromise is made with dishonorable people who set out to exploit that impulse for unity. Some deal had to be made, but it would be wrong to praise compromise for its own sake—the worthiness of any agreement between labor and capital lies in the effects it has on the exploited. In keeping with established trends, the MLBPA sold out its next generation of members for concessions that might look good on paper but will be worth nothing if ownership, once again, pulls the rug out from under the players. In exchange, the poorest people who work in baseball will have the boot pressed just a little more firmly onto their throats.
This is a heartbreaking failure of worker solidarity from the MLBPA, from whom we should expect more. And it’s par for the course from the owners and the league, from whom we should know better than to expect anything honorable or charitable at all.