The calendar has turned over into February. Punxsutawney Phil caught sight of his shadow, portending six more weeks of winter. It’s an apt forecast — the furry little weatherman’s augury of the delayed arrival of spring foreshadows a similar fate for the arrival of spring training and the 2022 MLB season. A permafrost has settled between owners and union, with no thaw in sight.
On Monday, Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich of The Athletic offered a rather bleak view of the current state of CBA negotiations. The core issues at hand include minimum salary, arbitration and pre-arb bonus pools, luxury tax, draft lottery, and service-time manipulation, and by all accounts the two sides are at odds on far more terms than those upon which they can find common ground. Rosenthal and Drellich leave us with the dispiriting conclusion that spring training is likely to be delayed, with the likelihood of losing regular season games becoming a more and more distinct possibility. (For those without a subscription, a useful Twitter thread can be found here.)
Much of this reporting resembles what we’ve heard since the beginning of the lockout, with the two sides in a holding pattern and little movement toward a deal. What really caught my attention this time around is some of the language being used to describe negotiation tactics, particularly by the owners.
The union views many of MLB’s offers as “the league giving the players something with one hand and taking something else away with the other.” In addition, the union has dropped some of their demands, conceding to the league’s non-negotiable stance on certain items like time to free agency and revenue sharing, while the league keeps offering the same proposals with no attempt to meet the players in the middle.
This all amounts to bad faith negotiation. The owners offer nominal improvements to minimum salary, a pre-arb bonus pool that divides out to only $333,333 per team, and the universal DH and elimination of draft-pick compensation for free agents (which realistically impact only a handful of players). In return, they are asking for expanded playoffs, advertising patches, and sports betting which could add up to hundreds of millions in increased revenue. The league purports that it is providing monetary gains to the players, but these increases are dwarfed by the potentially skyrocketing profits should the owners secure their most coveted desires.
If this type of negotiation battle plan seems familiar, it’s because we saw it put to use less than two years ago. Cast your minds back to the spring and summer months of 2020. The league’s current strategy of giving as little ground as possible is eerily reminiscent of the negotiations over the number of games and player compensation during the COVID-19-shortened season.
When it became clear that the regular season could not start on time, MLB and the MLBPA came to an agreement on March 26th that guaranteed players would receive a pro-rated portion of their full salaries based on the number of games played. After that agreement, the owners conspired to avoid honoring the terms stipulated by the accord.
They proceeded to tender bad faith offers which had no chance of being accepted by the players, deliberately delaying the start of the regular season until they reached the number of games they were willing to play without fans in attendance. These offers revolved around a regular season in the 70-80 game range where players would be paid a percentage of their prorated salaries (in violation of the March 26th agreement) or based on a percentage of revenue (which could set a dangerous precedent of player payroll capped by club revenue). Ultimately, the season was decided with the owners unilaterally imposing a 60-game schedule with full pro-rated pay, and it’s fair to question whether this was the plan all along.
I fear that is the template for how these CBA talks will resolve. Both in 2020 and now, it feels like the owners are playing chicken with the players, confident that they (the owners) are better positioned financially to withstand a potential loss of games. Their successes in divorcing revenue streams from the product on the field allows them to weather a shortened season. That is why I worry a delay to Opening Day can only be avoided by the union caving to demands rather than the two sides reaching an agreement.
The clock is ticking. Normally, pitchers and catchers would be reporting two weeks from now, with players following not far behind. The hope of Opening Day on March 31st grows fainter and fainter with each passing day. The union has shown they are willing to bargain, but still stand as a unified front. The owners present small gains but remain intractable in the areas that matter. Simply offering to maintain the status quo does not qualify as compromise. Both sides want to win. Because of that, the broader game may lose.