MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement: 10 Reasons the New Deal Stinks

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst INovember 23, 2011

MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement: 10 Reasons the New Deal Stinks

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    Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig wanted to expand the playoffs in order to help define his final legacy as baseball's custodian. Michael Weiner, head of the MLB Players' Association, appeased him.

    Selig wanted to stifle spending on amateur talent in baseball. Weiner appeased him.

    Selig wanted to swat down small-market teams with new rules about free-agent compensation, minimum salary and Super Two eligibility. Eagerly, Weiner appeased him.

    Don't think for one moment the choice of words is coincidence. Appeasement it was. That's the official term of modernity for the cowardly refusal to stand up to tyranny and villainy, and Weiner did no less by appeasing Selig.

    Don't buy the hype. Don't stand for the rhetoric about 21 years of labor peace. Don't applaud either side of the table on which MLB's new Collective Bargaining Agreement was hammered out. They don't deserve it.

    The new order they have created is an assault on the game. It's dreadful. A lockout, painful though it might be, as it would have infringed upon the winter's usual baseball wheeling and dealing, would have been far preferable to this dreck.

    Here are 10 reasons the CBA should tick you off.

The New Playoff System

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    Beginning no later than 2013 (Mr. Selig still hopes it will happen in 2012, though that feels infeasible even for him), there will be an extra Wild Card slot to be won in each league each season. Those two squads will then play a one-game tiebreaker for the right to move further, and to play one of the three division winners.

    (As part of the plan, the Houston Astros will move to the AL West, evening all six divisions at five teams. That, at least, makes sense. It's even positive.)

    There's nothing Selig loves more than one-game playoffs, so his desire for this was natural. And in seasons like 2011 and 2007, they would have worked, too.

    Consider, though, the other years. In 2009, the Boston Red Sox coasted to the AL Wild Card. They won 95 games, eight more than the next-best non-division winner. That team was the Texas Rangers. 

    Under the new set-up, the Minnesota Twins and Detroit Tigers would still have played their thrilling, classic one-game tie-breaker for the AL Central crown, with one team making the cut at 87-76.

    In addition, though, and possibly on a grander stage, the Red Sox would have played that stunningly inferior Rangers team (eight games worse) for the Wild Card berth.

    The Red Sox could very well lose such a game, thereby missing the playoffs while (not one) two teams made it with 88 or fewer victories. That will happen. It's a sure thing. And it's wrong.

Spitting on the Regular Season

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    One of the joys of baseball is the importance of the regular season. It has always been so. This is the game of inches, the everyday game.

    People who remember what life was like before the First Selig Imposition, the three-division, four-team post-season format, remember calling April through September the 'Championship Season.'

    Forget all that. Apparently, in Selig's view, one game is not as good as any other. By implementing a one-game playoff for the final playoff spot, Selig makes it clear: He thinks 162 games are insufficient evidence of the better between two teams.

    A head-to-head, final contest is necessary, and it deserves more weight than even six or eight or 10 games in the standings.

    Worse, he feels compelled to compress perfectly chaotic, scattered races into one or two games. In 2005, the relevant National League clubs stood thus after 162 games:

    St. Louis Cardinals: 100-62
    Atlanta Braves: 90-72
    Houston Astros: 89-73
    Philadelphia Phillies: 88-74
    San Diego Padres: 82-80

    The Padres won their division. The Cardinals won theirs. The Braves eked out the NL East by two games over Philadelphia, who also lost a thrilling battle for the Wild Card with Houston.

    The Astros earned it the hard way, too, sweeping the Phillies in a three-game Labor Day week series, then going on to win 13 of their final 18 and put Philadelphia away.

    That's how it happened. But it sure won't happen again. If the same situation occurred in 2013, Selig would plunge that 89-73 team into a one-game tie-breaker with the team they just spent all month edging out—by ONE GAME.

    Why does Mr. Selig get to invent games at the end of the season, then assign to them more value than any one of the previous 162, even a similar head-to-head clash? Can't think of a good reason? Yeah, me neither.

The Minimum-Wage Hike

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    American workers need a minimum-wage hike. The average minimum earner lives below the poverty line. The lowest-earning big-leaguer, though, is in much less dire straits. He was already making over $400,000 per year under the old CBA.

    Clearly, though, the union wanted concessions in return for some of the changes Selig demanded, and this was one to which Selig was wide open. That makes sense, because Selig clearly has no thought for small-market teams.

    Over the next three years, a phased-in raise in the minimum wage will push that figure past $500,000, from the 2011 base of $414,000. That's an extra $86,000 per player. Since teams like the Rays, Pirates and Royals reserve 10 or 11 roster spots for minimum-wage players every year, the new deal will cost them just shy of $1 million per annum.

    Does that not sound like much? Tell it to the Rays, for whom the change is the difference between fitting Jeff Niemann or Sean Rodriguez into their budget for 2012 and not.

Free-Agent Compensation Goes to Pot

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    The Yankees signed Rafael Soriano to a deal no other team in the league could afford after the 2010 season. The Rays lost him, but in return, got the Yankees' first-round draft pick the following June, plus an extra.

    Soriano was far out of their price range, but because they had had the savvy to acquire and get the most out of him while he was relatively cost-controlled, they got two picks as compensation. It was fair.

    The Red Sox, meanwhile, lost Adrian Beltre to the Rangers. That may be the wrong term, however. It became clear before Beltre even signed that the Sox intended to go another direction, shifting Kevin Youkilis across the diamond to third base and bumping Beltre out of town.

    Boston was in a better position to sign Beltre than was Texas, financially. They simply chose two draft picks over retaining him. They got better picks in return for Beltre than Tampa got for Soriano. Not really fair.

    The system will be different from now on. It will be worse. Fewer free agents will merit compensation, and—here's the appalling part—the team losing the player will have to file an official salary arbitration offer of at least $12 million in order to be compensated.

    No sweat for Boston. They have the cash. If they end up getting Beltre back at that price, he's a very movable commodity. If not, they simply take their picks and shrug off an anticipated loss.

    The Rays, though, get nothing. Even if Soriano had qualified as a compensation-worthy player under the new system (unlikely), he would walk away and the Rays would be left empty-handed, because they simply cannot afford to offer $12 million per year to any non-elite player.

    Small-market teams get the shaft again.

Draft Bonuses, Part I: Two-Sport Athletes

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    Every year, a dozen or so supremely talented prep athletes choose to play baseball instead of football or basketball. They make that choice because, until now, they have had much higher earning potential there than in either other sport. To choose basketball or football is to risk injury for some length of time while passing up over $2 million paid up front.

    Derrek Lee chose baseball over a North Carolina basketball scholarship in 1993. At the time of his signing with the San Diego Padres, the Tar Heels were three and a half months removed from a national championship.

    Matt Holliday chose the Colorado Rockies over football. Carl Crawford forsook football. Aramis Ramirez was a basketball star in the Dominican Republic before he even took to the game. Joe Mauer had a football future; so did Matt Kemp. Curtis Granderson could have played pigskin. Believe it or not, Carlos Zambrano was once a youth soccer star.

    This year in the draft, top picks Bubba Starling and Archie Bradley passed up major recruiting drives to quarterback Nebraska and Oklahoma, respectively, to sign for millions. Say goodbye to stars like these.

    The game will lose elite athleticism under these new rules, which stop teams from paying up the way they need to in order to coax these studs away from games that offer a glamorous, free and easy college education.

    Under the new rules, teams paying more than 15 percent over the league office's recommended bonus for their draft slot (which are stingy, at best) will not only have to pay the full difference as a luxury tax, but lose BOTH of their top two draft picks the following year.

Draft Bonuses, Part II: Small-Market Teams

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    The Kansas City Royals cannot afford top free agents. It just isn't on the table for them. In order to succeed, they need to take advantage of MLB's most inefficient market, and draft exceptionally aggressively.

    They have done so, though, and as a result, have built the game's best farm system. They could well win two division titles the next three years.

    The three years after that, though, just got a lot more dismal. These bonus limits make the draft more efficient. They stop teams from spending big bucks, allocating resources to sign top amateurs and making waves without spending the big bucks.

    As such, they screw over the Royals and similar teams (the Pirates have been just as good) who were using the last remaining loophole to get a leg up on their richer competition.

Draft Bonuses, Part III: The Draft and Tanking

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    So the draft is now efficient. Hooray. Though many players will never be picked since they will just play college football anyway, the ones who are selected will go more or less in order of talent.

    Here's the problem: Now the draft is just a riskier version of the NBA and NFL drafts. Those have long been worse than the MLB draft in this way: They encourage tanking.

    Because the drafts in pro basketball and football give the best players to the worst teams (by record) every season, teams in those sports invariably build to either compete vigorously or bomb totally. In the NBA, if you can't win 46 games and make the playoffs, you want to win 17 and pick first the following year.

    That's what MLB is going to look like going forward. The distribution of wins will be unnaturally distorted by teams who understand that in order to grab top talent the following June, they need to do more than unburden themselves of bad contracts. Teams will trade more aggressively each July, trying to win 65 games instead of 70.

    Don't believe me? This isn't a theory. It's happening already. The Cubs are putting Matt Garza, one of their two certain assets on the mound next season, on the trade market in the wake of this news.

    It's not the wrong decision, either. Theo Epstein and Co. now have better reason than ever to simply suck until they are good enough to win something meaningful.

    You know, like that famous second Wild Card.

International Free Agents and the De-Globalization of the Game

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    Selig didn't stop with the draft, though. He needed to ruin more of baseball's talent-acquisition paradigm. He reached down into Latin America, over to Europe and to the Pacific Rim and tightened the iron fist there, too.

    Teams get $2.9 million with which to sign international free agents every summer. That's only $1 million more than Miguel Cabrera signed for as an amateur in Venezuela 11 years ago. It's far less than most teams spend these days on similar players.

    It's going to haunt the game. For Selig, who has preached until blue in the face about the importance of MLB's international brand, and who so advocated the World Baseball Classic, it's a baffling move.

    He seems to think there is no relationship between the money available to elite international athletes, and their interest in signing.

    Venezuela is a baseball-loving land surrounded by soccer havens. Ditto the Dominican Republic, which shares an island with soccer-crazed Haiti.

    The next Cabrera will be playing basketball or soccer if these rules are tough to skirt.

So Much for Jackie Robinson

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    You might have noticed this, but lest it's slipped by: Two-sport athletes are going to play other sports under this new system.

    So are international free agents, the Dominican and Venezuelan kids who were already getting just barely enough to risk years of estrangement from family and a harsh world in the minor leagues on the chance of hitting it big.

    It all adds up to a future that looks unhappily like baseball's distant past. The game is going to be played predominantly by slow, stocky white men.

    Walk and strikeout rates will rise even higher than their current all-time highs, which sometimes slow games to a crawl even now. Speed will be less important than at any time since the 1940s. No coincidence.

    More important than the product on the field, by alienating minorities (not completely, but too much), the game becomes less important. It becomes smaller, less meaningful and less rich.

    The culture that surrounds baseball is going to change if these rules aren't reversed in four or five years, and not for the better.

Choosing Constituencies

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    Very few readers will get this far into this article. I understand that. To many, it will sound unduly alarmist, because for many, this deal actually will not affect their consumption of baseball much.

    But it will hurt the game in my eyes. It will hurt the game in the eyes of kids, who will find the new brand of baseball less engaging; of amateurs, who will choose other paths in life; of hard-core fans who loved the intricacies of the systems that were in place; and of those who want baseball to matter on more than a trivial level.

    In accepting Selig's deal, the players' association sold its soul. It sold out kids who look up to its members. It sold out prospective members. It sold them all out to appease Selig, and to look good next to other leagues who have recently been through labor entanglements.

    It sold out to grab for the central cross-section of middle-aged, white America, except for those (statheads, farm-system gurus and general devotees) who truly savor baseball year-round. They seem to have knowingly chosen quantity of baseball fans over quality of fans, over quality of the game even, and that's a damn shame.