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Hal Steinbrenner’s outsized role in the lockout

On the Yankees’ managing partner and the status quo.

MLB: New York Yankees-Workouts Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Dick Monfort may be the head of MLB’s labor committee, but if you’re looking for the actual most powerful owner in the game, he’s the guy sitting beside Monfort this week in CBA talks — Hal Steinbrenner. The Yankees’ managing partner has kept most of his thoughts on the lockout to himself, but his relative position within the consortium of MLB gives him more sway over how this thing ends than almost anyone else on the ownership side.

Technically, each of the 30 owners in the game has a single nontransferrable vote, meaning they all technically have the same say, but if you’ve ever sat on a collective or committee, you know that actual consensus tends to be directed by one or two particularly powerful individuals, and if they choose to, they can move the rest of the committee toward their intended outcome.

Hal Steinbrenner is in control of the richest franchise, in the biggest market, with the most lucrative regional sports network, the world’s fifth or sixth most valuable company for a business partner, and the brand that he’s in charge of occupies a cultural space that most teams don’t. Yes, Mark Lerner may be richer than Hal is, but the Nationals don’t command the cultural awareness the Yankees do, which also increases Hal’s relative standing within the ownership group.

Of course, Hal also often runs the highest, or near-highest payroll in the game, and while I think we can rightly complain that he should be spending more, he and GM Brian Cashman get calls from every free agent. As often comes with the territory of signing FAs, he’s been the employer of some of the most pro-union voices around the league, including Andrew Miller, Zack Britton, and Gerrit Cole, who have all served on the MLBPA’s executive committee.

Now someone like Cole is still due about a quarter of a billion dollars, so I don’t think he’s going to let any labor disputes get personal between he and his employer, but repeatedly signing leaders of the PA should give Steinbrenner a little more insight into what players’ concerns are than, say, John Sherman, who owns the Royals.

All of this is to say, what is Hal Steinbrenner going to do with all that power?

We know that earlier in the lockout, he supported the initial proposal to lower the CBT threshold to $180 million, and both he and Cashman have publicly lamented subsidizing smaller market teams through the CBT overage, even though that’s not actually how the tax works. We can assume he’s onside with the latest proposal to stiffen the penalties for going over the threshold, but what’s more interesting to me is how much solidarity he’s willing to show the smaller market, or deliberately less competitive, teams.

Say what you will about the Yankees over the past five or six seasons, but they’ve never bottomed out. The strategy is pretty evident — occasionally go over the CBT threshold, then reset, make the playoffs every year, but once you’re there, its all a crapshoot. I don’t love that approach, but it’s a damn sight better than what the Pirates, Orioles or Royals do.

Hal isn’t likely to run into trouble with the repeater penalties, given the over-then-under tactics he’s used the last few seasons. However, raising the CBT threshold, or instituting some kind of floor, doesn’t really serve his interests. Having six or seven bidders for Aaron Judge this winter instead of three or four makes him more expensive, and any changes to the revenue sharing model to help lower end teams spend more would also hurt the Yankees to a disproportionate level.

At the same time, the CBT level isn’t dropping to $180 million, and the minimum salary is coming up, full-stop. I truly believe the union would rather sit out an entire season than budge on those critical topics. Having the most robust cash flow in baseball only really matters if those inflows keep coming, so there’s not much incentive for Hal to lose a full season either. He wouldn’t be hurt that much by a lost season, but he doesn’t really benefit.

So really, what we end up with is a structure where the most powerful owner in baseball is really most interested in the status quo. He’s shown a lack of interest in blowing away the rest of the league financially, near the top of payroll tables but never $20-30 million over everyone else. He also doesn’t have a ton of reason to support lower teams spending more, and doesn’t gain anything from a lost season.

I’ve thought for a while that we’re not likely to see a massive shift in the business of baseball in these CBA negotiations. It appears we’re getting the universal DH and 14 postseason teams, which we all kind of knew were coming. We’re probably going to see some increase in the CBT, though not a dramatic one, and I don’t think we’re getting something resembling a spending floor.

A lot of this has to do with the fact that one of the most powerful figures in the game doesn’t benefit much from major changes in the business model. MLB is a consortium of 30 men with a single vote each, but like most collectives, should one or two members with outsized real power decide to move quickly to a resolution, we might reach one sooner than we think.