MLB Provided Union List of Non-Negotiable Topics That Includes Arb Expansion, Earlier FA Status, Additional Service Time Accumulation

The MLB lockout isn’t yet three days old and there’s still plenty of time to get things worked out, but both sides seem to have dedicated the early stages of negotiation to digging trenches from which they’ll only occasionally pop their heads. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that each side has accused the other of being intractable in its stance on the primary financial topics at the heart of the collective bargaining agreement.

Commissioner Rob Manfred laid out the league’s case for a lockout with a letter to baseball fans that read like propaganda and very predictably used the November spending spree against the players.

I want to explain to you how we got here and why we have to take this action today. Simply put, we believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season. We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time. This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.

When we began negotiations over a new agreement, the Players Association already had a contract that they wouldn’t trade for any other in sports. Baseball’s players have no salary cap and are not subjected to a maximum length or dollar amount on contracts. In fact, only MLB has guaranteed contracts that run 10 or more years, and in excess of $300 million. We have not proposed anything that would change these fundamentals. While we have heard repeatedly that free agency is “broken” – in the month of November $1.7 billion was committed to free agents, smashing the prior record by nearly 4x. By the end of the offseason, Clubs will have committed more money to players than in any offseason in MLB history.

And I get it, right, this is how it works when you argue your case in the court of public opinion. The jury doesn’t seem to be quite as sympathetic to the league as it has been in the past, though, especially when Manfred and the owners just keep making the same arguments over and over through their trusty old channels. Meanwhile, the players can deliver their message straight to the fans through more personal platforms.

Interestingly enough, that message seems to stand in direct opposition to the claims laid out in the commissioner’s letter.

“The league has consistently said on revenue sharing, they will not change it, period,” Bruce Meyer, the union’s lead negotiator, explained to the media. “There’s a whole list of topics that they told us they will not negotiate [emphasis mine]. They will not agree, for example, to expand salary arb eligibility. They will not agree to any path for any player to achieve free agency earlier. They will not agree to anything that would allow players to have additional ways to get service time to combat service-time manipulation. They told us on all those things, they will not agree. 

“We, on the other hand, have indicated that we’re prepared to continue talking about anything and everything, and we haven’t drawn any lines in the sand on anything. But that’s what we’ve been confronted with.”

The truth of the matter is probably somewhere in between, but we’ve seen from previous negotiations that ownership has typically been more dug in on its proposals. What it really comes down to isn’t so much that neither party is willing to move, just that neither is willing to move far enough toward the other to be considered significant.

Evan Drellich of The Athletic has been covering this topic exhaustively for the past several weeks, providing myriad details about the disparate proposals the whole time. Calling them disparate actually seems a little strange when you see how close some of the numbers and concepts appear to be from the outside, though it’s obvious the league and union see even minor discrepancies as stumbling blocks.

Take free agency, for example, an area in which the union has been trying to gain ground in order to avoid service-time manipulation and get players out from under club control earlier. The owners proposed an age-based system in which players automatically become free agents at 29 1/2 years old, with July 1 being the line of demarcation. That would allow every player to become a free agent before his age-30 season, though it would also dramatically increase club control over players who debut at a young age.

The union’s proposal was for no change in the first two years of the deal, so a player would have to have six years to get to free agency. Over the next two years of the CBA, players would reach free agency if they were at least 30 1/2 and had five years of service time. In the final two years, the age would drop to 29 1/2 and five years of service. The union also wants arbitration after two years rather than three, which would represent a pay raise for young players.

I don’t want to speak for you, but that sounds like a very reasonable option that blends the current system with what the owners proposed. Except for the whole five years thing, which shortens control. That’s almost certainly the sticking point, though the fact that it’s tied to age seems to indicate clubs would still be able to keep players like Juan Soto, Fernando Tatis Jr., and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for much longer than before.

I’m surprised players didn’t go for service time OR an age target. Maybe they did and the explanation of the proposal simply didn’t reflect that as well as it could have. Not that it really would have mattered if the league isn’t amenable to any reductions in club control in the first place.

The most important thing to remember is all of this is that almost everything we hear is an example of posturing by one side or the other. These public statements are typically exaggerated to make a point and avoid surrendering any leverage, though they may not be all that far from the truth here in the early going as the two sides engage with the awkwardness of a middle school dance.

Now we just sit back and hope we’re not hearing the same reports in another month.

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