Very Little Movement in CBA Negotiations as Feb 28 ‘Deadline’ Nears

If a new CBA is going to be hammered out prior to the league’s deadline of February 28, there’s going to have to be a lot more ground covered on some of the bigger issues still in play. Major League Baseball and the MLBPA have made “no substantive progress” over four straight days of talks, though there have been incremental adjustments to some of the less divisive tenets of the deal.

Before we get to that, though, I want to discuss this whole deadline thing, which feels like parents threatening to turn the car around several hours into a road trip to Disney World. If that’s not your jam, pick out whatever destination you prefer that would be at least as fun for the parents as the kids. Point being, the owners say they will start canceling games and won’t pay the players for a full season if an agreement isn’t in place by the end of the month.

Ah, but the players have already made it clear that they won’t agree to expanded playoffs if they’re not paid for a full season. When you look at the economics of the sport and how heavily the league’s broadcast rights are weighted toward the postseason, it’s pretty clear the owners stand to lose more by forfeiting playoff revenue. I suppose the league could view it as more of a big-picture thing in that they’ll get expanded playoffs for the subsequent four years of the deal and beyond, but that’s not the case if the players stand firm and ixnay the ovemay to 12+ postseason teams altogether.

Then you’ve got the entirely laughable notion that it took until late February for owners to be willing to sit down for a series of negotiations. After waiting several weeks in an attempt to sweat the players out, the league is now imposing ultimatums to see if the union can yet be broken. One has to wonder, however, whether the solidarity of the ownership group is more likely to fracture along fault lines of wealth and market size.

After all, Tom Ricketts has claimed 70% of the Cubs’ annual revenue comes from gameday operations. Inflated though that figure may be, it stands to reason that the club indeed depends more than almost every other team on attendance in and around the ballpark during the season. The addition of a sportsbook to the corner of Addison and Sheffield makes playing games that much more of a priority moving forward.

With the Cubs’ season ticket sales already suffering from the apathy ownership has unwittingly fostered over the past several years, losing even a small portion of the season to labor strife would be a big blow. The losses might only be secular in nature, unlike those Ricketts has previously claimed, but they’d still be felt. Could the Cubs and other big-market teams be feeling the heat of their own deadline more than the players are?

The league’s offers certainly don’t reflect that, as little has changed when it comes to the topics of minimum pay and the competitive balance tax thresholds/penalties. To this point, only the MLBPA appears to have made meaningful adjustments to its offers, the most recent of which involved the implementation of a draft lottery for non-playoff teams.

As laid out in MLB Trade Rumors, the 18 teams watching the postseason on television — the union has proposed a 12 team format, the league wants 14 — would all have a shot at the top pick. Their chances of landing that pick would range from 15% (two worst records) to 0.375% (best record among non-playoff teams). The lottery would cover the top seven picks in this proposal, three more than the league has offered, and there are various stipulations for market size and continually faring poorly in the standings.

The players have also made adjustments to their ask when it comes to earning service time via awards voting and WAR rankings, though the league is opposed to that concept in general. Likewise, the percentage of players who are eligible for arbitration after two years of service has been a sticking point on which only the union has moved. While making 100% of those players at two-plus years arb-eligible was never going to happen, the league calling any changes to the current 22% level a non-starter is not a sign of bargaining in good faith.

The owners’ logic is that a 22% level is palatable because you’re talking about the best of the best, so getting an extra year of control over that group in exchange for higher pay at an earlier juncture is acceptable. However, doubling or even trebling the pool means paying a lot more — relatively speaking — to players who may never even reach free agency. For a league that depends on cheap labor — about 60% of the workforce is pre-arb — to subsidize the superstars, you can imagine why owners don’t want to move from the current structure.

There will be downstream impact no matter how this gets worked out, most of which will be felt by those mid-tier veterans looking for a new deal in their 30s. Those are the players who become most expendable, particularly as owners consider paying a majority of their player personnel an extra $100,000 or so each year. They have already seen fit to pay more rookies than 33-year-old fourth outfielders, and that trend may increase moving forward.

Minor league camps are already in action as players report ahead of the official start days on or around March 7, so MLB coaching staffs are being told to be ready to go. Whether they’ll have players from the 40-man rosters to coach is another matter entirely, though there has been a sense from among some in the industry that the owners know what they’ll have to cede in order to get this rolling.

Is that truly the case or is it a matter of the owners greatly underestimating the union’s resolve? Either way, we should find out by Monday.

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