MLB Lockout: Path to free agency a sticking point in negotiations

Rob Manfred (Arturo Pardavila III)

Due to federal law, Major League Baseball cannot use any player’s likeness. If you visit the league’s website, you’ll notice empty silhouettes where headshots used to be. It’s a bit jarring to look at it, and many players are using these open silhouettes as their new social media avatars. A display of solidarity among the union. 

The players messaging from negotiations has been consistent. They are most concerned about the competitive state of the league – or put in another way – the number of rebuilding teams. Then there is the path to free agency for players. A significant sticking point in these conversations might be the most contentious in negotiations that led MLB to enter a lockout.  

Evan Drellich of The Athletic learned about what MLBPA proposed to the owners of revamping the path to free agency for players. 

The Players Association is trying to pave a path for players reaching free agency in just five seasons. That path seems to be for those players who are called up at a later age—for example, Gavin Sheets of the White Sox, who made his league debut at age 25. Under the recently expired CBA, Sheets wouldn’t be a free agent until after the 2027 season when he turns 31 years old. Under the Players Association proposal, if Sheets is a regular for the White Sox for the next four seasons, he’ll be a free agent one year earlier for meeting both the age requirement and years of service. 

While it works great for someone like Sheets, this proposal has little impact on someone like Andrew Vaughn, who made his MLB debut a day before his 23rd birthday. Vaughn wouldn’t meet the age requirement to become a free agent, so the White Sox would still have six years of control. 

It’s a model that doesn’t work for all players, but it does aid those like Gavin Sheets or Jeff McNeil of the New York Mets. McNeil made his MLB debut at age 26, and the Mets still have two more arbitration seasons after 2022, even though McNeil would be in his early 30’s. Instead of waiting until after the 2024 season to become a free agent, McNeil would be a free agent after the 2023 season.

One fewer year of control doesn’t seem a big deal, but evidently, it is to the owners. Commissioner Rob Manfred spoke to the media yesterday and was quite adamant about not liking the player’s proposal. 

Manfred comes off base when saying players who leave teams are fans’ most negative reaction. Especially when those who live in Iowa are blacked out from watching six teams (including the White Sox), and it appears that both Oakland and Tampa are going to wave goodbye to their teams as they relocate. Making it very difficult for millions of people to watch your sport seems like the most significant source of negativity. 

Manfred’s retort goes back to the playbook of how the league has to be mindful of the small-market teams. About how devastating it would be for fans to watch players leave after just five seasons. But we see teams often sign their star players to contract extensions like the always poor Tampa Bay Rays did when they inked Wander Franco to an 11-year deal

Also, the whole “small-market” angle is getting harder to buy when Forbes this past March had every MLB team except Miami valued at $1 Billion or more. The Marlins are valued at $990 million, so they barely missed the mark, but there’s a chance when Forbes updates their list in Spring 2022, every MLB team will be worth at least $1 Billion. 

It seems that if teams still wanted to have six years of control, they would just call up players sooner under this proposal. Or, if a particular player is struggling, they send them back down to the minors to stop the service clock. Prevent players from reaching that five years of service before turning 29.5 years old. 

Max Scherzer told The Athletic that “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid, that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”

It’s early, but after day one of the lockout, it’s apparent that the two parties are not budging from their stance on free agency. We’ll see which side blinks first on this matter. 

Author

  • Josh Nelson

    Josh Nelson is the host and producer of the Sox Machine Podcast. For show suggestions, guest appearances, and sponsorship opportunities, you can reach him via email at josh@soxmachine.com.

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roke1960

The owners will just wait the players out. I think they would easily cancel the 2022 season before they give in to the players demands. Without a Marvin Miller or Don Fehr, the players will cave, as they usually do. And that will happen when they get close to losing a paycheck.

GrinnellSteve

I actually think the players will stand firm this time. The tide is turning back toward labor all across the economy. But the owners could cancel the season.

roke1960

If the players stand firm, there won’t be a season. The owners can hold out longer than the players.

GrinnellSteve

That would invite Congressional involvement. the very last thing the owners want.

roke1960

When was the last time Congress was effective at anything?

GrinnellSteve

Saving the national pastime is exactly the kind of grandstanding they could get behind.

As Cirensica

I was about to reply the same when I read Roke’s comment above

Trooper Galactus

Except the “Save the National Pastime” bill was basically a gift to owners that legalized poverty wages for prospects.

GrinnellSteve

I wasn’t even aware of that heinous carveout. Still, the situations surrounding that and a chance to showboat and save some semblance of a major league season are different. Plus, workers are advancing and the public is more sympathetic to the labor movement than it was 3 years ago. I do believe Congress will threaten to intervene if this drags on.

Trooper Galactus

Just saying Congress tends to intervene on the side with the better funded lobbyists.

knoxfire30

Hard to find a middle ground in these standoffs trying to think of what each side could concede, I would hope the owners would throw a proposal out to really upgrade minor league facilities, cost of living, living conditions and set a salary floor of around 100 million per team… that would increase significantly the amount of money a lot of the “tanking” teams have to spend. I also think it creates a situation where teams may keep their own home grown players as oppose to trading them a year or two out from free agency. The players could probably concede on the service time issue as long as perhaps the rate of pay for pre-arbitration years goes up and an age deadline is put in place.

Wayne

Players have already conceded. They gave a proposal back with expanded playoffs, which is the 1 thing Owners need for their ESPN Contract.

roke1960

But that is not the big sticking point. The big sticking point is free agency, and the owners will not budge on the current system. Expanded playoffs is not necessarily a bad thing for players, because more players will have a chance at postseason money. I think they’ll probably end up at 6 teams from each league in the playoffs, which is what the players proposed. But going down to 5 years for free agency for guys over 29 1/2 is a no-go for the owners.

Wayne

My point is they made the concession already. Not sure what owners offered yet.

burning-phoneix

According to Manfred, the league offered higher minimum wages, a salary floor, a draft lottery, universal DH and increasing the luxury tax threshold.

knoxfire30

I actually hate expanded playoffs, but it is a concession from players to owners as they likely take in a much bigger share of that profit pool this is true.

calcetinesblancos

I don’t think I can put into words how much I despise any sort of expanded playoffs.

calcetinesblancos

Interesting. My first reaction to the $100 mil salary floor is that it’s high, but at the same time in terms revenue sharing the teams giving money would probably rather have a system where they know their money is going towards improving the on field product for the other teams as opposed to lord knows what.

knoxfire30

When you add up the shared money from Fox, Espn, TBS, XM deals you already have a pretty high dollar figure. Then you go to local tv and radio. Then you go ticket sales, concessions etc…. 100 mil is a pretty low bar. People really don’t understand how much money these owners make during a tanking season.

roke1960

Even though it makes perfect sense, there is zero chance the owners would even consider a $100M floor.

knoxfire30

Sportrac had last years league average payroll at 126 mil , asking the bottom or so 10 teams to be within 80% of league average doesn’t seem like a huge deal breaker to me. I keep going back to the massive shared revenue all these teams have in the bank before doing anything on their own in terms of selling tickets and getting their own tv and radio deals.

roke1960

But all of the owners are firmly united in keeping their pockets lined as much as possible. It’s why they’ll never let the players see their books. If they did, the game will be over for them. Having followed the last 50 years of negotiations, the owners will never agree to a cap remotely that high. I wish that weren’t so, but sadly that’s the case.

knoxfire30

You definitely might be right.

joewho112

The nice thing about a salary floor and most teams wouldn’t be impacted. So basically, are the owners of the Dodgers and Yankees really that invested in the profit margins of the A’s and Ray’s owners to lose money by cancelling a season?

roke1960

I agree with you. It makes good sense, but having seen what the owners have done in the past, that’s just a non-starter with them.

knoxfire30

Thats an understated point, I wonder what the vote would be on a floor…. do the budget pinchers really outnumber the owners who would lose a seasons revenue that wouldnt be effected by the 100 mil bar to clear…

Seems like a good way for the players to maybe break some owner unity by committing to a floor that would really only impact 10 of 30 teams.

joewho112

Seems like there could be a deal where there is a floor that only has major impacts the really abusive penny pinchers (Marlins, Rays, A’s, Pirates, Indians, Orioles), you find a compromise on service time (keep 6 years of control but make manipulation harder), expand the playoffs (and by extension TV money for all teams), and universal DH.

Everyone keeps getting richer and the world goes round.

roke1960

Your proposal sounds so reasonable- for us that seems like a very good compromise. I don’t know why something like that couldn’t be the framework of a deal, but history shows that won’t happen.

joewho112

What history? There hasn’t been a game lost to labor struggles in almost 30 years

roke1960

Because the players basically cave every time.

joewho112

On the topic of salary floor, if they use the CBA tax number (https://legacy.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/cots/), it only forces 4 teams to increase spending by more than $10M and an additional 4 teams need to increase spending less that $10M.

Trooper Galactus

Except if you’re a major market owner who spends gobs of money (Yankees, Angels, Dodgers, Red Sox, etc.) and a large portion of your annual revenue goes directly into another owner’s pockets and not into improving the league as a whole, why would you be happy with that state of affairs?

Wayne

I think someone added up the National TV money and got $61M per year.

Trooper Galactus

An analysis I read showed that every team gets approximately $60 million annually from the MLB broadcast deals alone. Considering the amount of revenue sharing received by the supposed poverty franchises beyond that, every team practically makes $100 million in revenue before a single fan even walks through the turnstiles.

calcetinesblancos

One fewer year of control doesn’t seem a big deal, but evidently, it is to the owners.”

I mean, of course that’s a big deal. That one year equals A LOT of money, especially with certain players. But at the same time, the proposal from the players doesn’t really seem that ridiculous given that so many front offices consider a player around 30 to be bordering on useless anyway.

Multiple aspects of this proposal would be good for the game. It would force teams to give players a shot sooner (which imo accelerates player development), it would facilitate trades, and would also probably have teams offering more contract extensions, which the player can always say no to.

I honestly think they should not meet for a week or two. Let them both gauge fan reaction, cool down, and then realize that finding a solution to this is better than the alternative.

Trooper Galactus

It’s a problem of ownerships’ own making. The willingness of more than one team to blatantly manipulate service time over putting their best product on the field is the only reason this became such a sticking point with the union. Until bullshit like the Cubs pulled with Kris Bryant, the MLBPA went decades without six years of control being a sticking point.

As Cirensica

I highly doubt this lockout will be solve this year.

roke1960

I’m not sure the players have the resolve to miss a whole season. They would need a strong leader like Marvin Miller or Don Fehr to keep them from caving after they start losing paychecks. I’m not sure Tony Clark is strong enough to keep them unified when they aren’t being paid.

As Cirensica

When I said “this year” I meant 2021. I think it will be solved at some point in 2022. There’s just way too much money out there to afford a strike. The only players that wouldn’t mind a strike are the players with the quietest voice. Do you really think Max Scherzer will forego 40M at a 37 yr pitcher to support a noble cause? Color me doubtful.

roke1960

I agree 100%. Which is why the owners will not budge. They know that those guys will lose their resolve when the big paychecks are threatened. It’s easy for them to be strong now- they aren’t getting paid. But when the prospects of losing that big check start to become reality, the noble cause goes out the window.

calcetinesblancos

Based on what Scherzer said above, it sure sounds like it. More importantly, according to BR he’s banked $221 million in his career, so I don’t think he’ll be the first crack in the facade.

As Cirensica

I used Scherzer as an example. Also, 40 million in one year when you are a 37 year pitcher is not something Scherzer will dismiss easily. Like Roke said, he can talk tough now. Let’s wait what he has to say when March comes and we are still on a lockout.

You really believe players that have made small fortunes are THAT charitable like to forego 40M because they made 200M in their career? Maybe there are some of them, but probably not many.

The only one laughing now is Bobby Bonilla. He will get his 1.19 million cheque on July 1st no matter what.

calcetinesblancos

Is there a person alive who would dismiss $40 million “easily?” I don’t think Scherzer is the kind of person to speak first and then think. Also keep in mind this is a guy who shared a love of baseball with a brother who took his own life. I think he is very aware that money isn’t everything.

And I actually think it is pretty noble of him to talk about the young players getting paid considering he doesn’t have any skin in that game.

roke1960

Maybe Scherzer will try to hold his ground, but Mrs. Scherzer won’t want to miss that $40M!

Joliet Orange Sox

The union doesn’t have to convince Scherzer (and other highly paid players) to forego huge sums of money. They just have to convince them to support the union today. Then tomorrow, they have to convince them again just like any other union in a lockout/strike. The owners have a similar dynamic. Very few lockouts/strikes end with one side or the other completely surrendering. Eventually, both sides will know what their members will fight for and won’t fight for as it gets painful for both sides and a deal will be struck. There’s so much money involved for both sides that an entire cancelled season is not really in anyone’s interest.

I will also state again that the first thing a mediator from FMCS would tell both sides here is that negotiating publicly through the media makes a deal harder to get. I assume they won’t use FMCS (although it would help) but the idea that public negotiating causes problems is true nonetheless.

Trooper Galactus

Isn’t Paul Konerko still getting a check?

burning-phoneix

He had 1 Million USD paid out to him this year that was deferred from his 2013 2.5 Million 1 year extension.

GrinnellSteve

Who is the Sox’ player rep? Seems like Giolito is the likeliest candidate.

GrinnellSteve

Thanks. The Sox are well represented.

a-t

The Marlins are that low only because the new owners took on a huge chunk of debt, I think about $500-600M, from Loria when they acquired the team five years ago. That’s factored into the valuation, I’m 90% sure, bc Loria tied the debt to the team. Otherwise, the Marlins are set up for huge financial success— they play in the 5th biggest market in the country and may soon have the whole state of Florida to themselves, their (publicly-funded) stadium is only a decade old, and Kim Ng is clearly a very competent GM who is more than deserving of her trailblazing status.

The MLBPA negotiated pretty poorly in the past CBAs, and now they want to rectify that. Ownership does not want to give up much of anything. If anything I think MLBPA is being too reasonable and compromising already, honestly; they should demand a flat 5 years (2 pre-arb, 3 arb) to free agency regardless of age. Meanwhile, the players’ other aims— essentially, to force everyone to be competitive— is very clearly in the best interests of the sport and the fans as well.

roke1960

You’re right- the MLBPA has negotiated poorly in the past. And the owners are counting on that again. For the most part, the owners are businessmen who treat their ownership as a toy. They have plenty of other sources of income. They can just wait out the players, because the players will ultimately not want to go a full year without paychecks. Just because the players have negotiated poorly in the past, the owners are not now going to say, “Well let’s give them what they want this time.” That’s not going to happen. The owners will hold the line until the players cave. They’ll throw a couple of bones their way (universal DH, slight raise in the luxury tax bar), but in the end free agency will not change significantly.

Trooper Galactus

Wasn’t the inclusion of their stadium in the valuation of the team subjected to a lawsuit by the city? I seem to recall quite a few shenanigans with this ownership group (and by Loria, naturally) trying to avoid the city reaping any benefit from the sale of the team, and wasn’t sure if some of the devaluation came as a result of not being able to tie the stadium deal into the valuation.

Alfornia Jones

The players have the upper hand, screw the owners. MLBPA needs to keep the lower paid guys unified, they’re the ones who would break first.

A number of the franchises are extremely over leveraged including the Cubs. Their bills still come due regardless of the stoppage, so I see these owners breaking ranks.

The owners free agency plan is more bullshit since it still doesn’t address their ability to suppress a players clock from starting, it only gives them full freedom somewhere around 30.

One compromise would be start arbitration after 2 seasons, even if that means working out the contract during the season. Eliminate the eligibility manipulation by using 162 games as the yearly measurement standard, and eliminate the owners ability to stow a player in AAA for two weeks or whatever bs super 2 rule. If year 6 ends during the season, then they work that out during the last arb hearing with an auto escalator.

It really needs to be tailored to the top prospects so they get paid sooner and don’t get suppressed in the minors. Also, the older the rookie is, his base pay should be higher with auto escalators for pre arb years. If he breaks camp for the first time at age 27, he’s basically been below the poverty line for 4-8 years prior. That how you keep the lower class on board for the fight.