It's Time to Take the Threat of an MLB Lockout Seriously

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterNovember 23, 2016

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league's owners may be ready to put their foot down.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and the league's owners may be ready to put their foot down.Elsa/Getty Images

It's been 21 years since Major League Baseball exited its last work stoppage.

Oh, how I'd love to tack an "and counting" on the end of that sentence. Instead, time may be counting down to baseball's next work stoppage.

The majors' collective bargaining agreement is due to expire Dec. 1. The thinking has long been that MLB and the MLB Players Association—in keeping with their recent history of peaceful relations—would hammer out a new agreement before then.

Not so fast, Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com reported Tuesday:

According to Rosenthal, the owners, represented by Commissioner Rob Manfred, are growing frustrated with the slow pace of discussions on the part of the players, represented by union chief Tony Clark. And so, they're preparing to vote on a lockout if a new deal doesn't materialize by deadline day.

This is obviously a threat, presumably leaked from the owners in an attempt to light a fire under the players. Such things tend to happen in situations like these. Perhaps the only surprise is that it came so late in the game.

But as late in the game as it is, there is still time. Counting Tuesday and deadline day, the two sides have 10 days to work something out.

"In terms of trying to make a deal, 10 days is plenty of time," Manfred told Joel Sherman of the New York Post.

To boot, the Dec. 1 deadline is more of a target date than a true deadline. As Nathaniel Grow of FanGraphs noted last week, the league and the union can keep talking beyond that date if they so desire.

All the same, there's no denying the tenor of the situation has changed. And not for the better.

MLBPA executive director Tony Clark is negotiating his first CBA.
MLBPA executive director Tony Clark is negotiating his first CBA.Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

While the owners may be frustrated with the pace of talks, the sticking points between the two sides are more specific.

According to Rosenthal, one involves the competitive balance tax. Another involves changes to the Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program.

The big one, however, is the idea for a draft for international amateurs. Manfred has been lobbying for that ever since he stepped into Bud Selig's shoes in January 2015, typically with the same talking points.

"I am of the view that at some point, for the good of the game, for the good of competitive balance, we are going to have an international draft," Manfred said last spring, per Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer (via MLB Trade Rumors).

Rosenthal reported the owners are willing to scrap the qualifying-offer system to get an international draft. At first, that would seem to be welcome news for the players.

Kendrys Morales, for example, lingered on the free-agent market into June 2014.
Kendrys Morales, for example, lingered on the free-agent market into June 2014.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After all, the qualifying-offer system has been a frequent source of controversy since it was implemented in 2012. Players who reject the one-year offers (valued at $17.2 million this winter) are tied to draft-pick compensation in free agency, which has been a major drain on some players' value.

And yet, it seems the players aren't motivated enough by the proposal to do away with qualifying offers to accept an international draft. Even though they're not obligated to go to bat for the amateurs who would be affected, Rosenthal reported the players are strongly opposed to the idea.

Why? Because it's not really about competitive balance, as Manfred said.

It's about money. As Ben Badler of Baseball America wrote Nov. 11, an international draft would "give owners a systematic way to control their labor costs, meaning less money for players and more money for owners."

The system MLB has in place for international amateurs assigns teams bonus pools that vary in size based on where they finished in the standings the prior season. Certainly, it's not an ideal system.

But for now, it at least gives teams a chance to negotiate with any player they desire. That's partially why some are willing to accept the penalties for exceeding their bonus pools. The most prominent example of that was when the Boston Red Sox broke the bank for Yoan Moncada in March 2015.

Penalties turned Yoan Moncada's $31.5 million signing bonus into a $63 million investment for the Red Sox.
Penalties turned Yoan Moncada's $31.5 million signing bonus into a $63 million investment for the Red Sox.Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Meanwhile, consider the draft baseball does have. Its nature prohibits teams from negotiating with whomever they'd like to and, since 2012, has put limits on how much they can spend. For the owners, it's a perfect cost-control system. No wonder they want to replicate it for international players.

Hypothetically, less money spent on amateurs means more money for owners to spend on established players. But the union must be aware that's not how things have been playing out.

In fact, the players' share of baseball's pie has been trending downward at an alarming rate. As Grow covered last spring, player payroll has gone from a peak of 56 percent of the league's total revenue in 2002 to just 38 percent in 2014. More and more, the wealth hasn't been trickling down.

It's not a matter of the money not being there. As reported by Maury Brown of Forbes, MLB revenues hit a new height of $9.5 billion last season. That was up from $9 billion in 2014.

What has changed is how teams prefer to spend their money.

They're more wary of spending in free agency than they used to be. In the modern performance-enhancing drugs testing era, players tend to be near or past the end of their primes when they finally hit free agency. They're not good long-term investments.

By all rights, Mike Trout should be the richest player in baseball.
By all rights, Mike Trout should be the richest player in baseball.Matt Brown/Getty Images

As for the young guys, their costs have been controlled for many years by the arbitration system. And even when they sign big-money extensions, they tend to be for far less than what they would have earned on the open market—see Mike Trout signing for six years and $144.5 million.

So while ditching qualifying offers in exchange for an international draft may seem like a fair trade, the players understandably aren't convinced since the owners would swap out a relatively minor cost-control device for the latest in a series of major cost-control devices.

"We aren't giving them something that affects 30 percent of big leaguers and probably 50 percent of minor leaguers in exchange for something that affects less than 20 players every year, especially guys who are staring $17 million in the face," one source told Rosenthal.

Understand, all this bad noise doesn't mean the players can't be moved to make a deal before deadline day. As one source told Rosenthal, the remaining sticking points are "nothing that reasonable and creative people can't resolve."

But it's also understandable why one player said the union "will fight" if pushed. The system hasn't been unkind to players recently, but it's been a lot kinder to the owners. Why roll over and let the trend continue?

If a lockout does happen, the good news for fans is that only the business side of the game would be interrupted. The hot-stove season would definitely get boring. But unlike the 1994-95 strike, no games would be in immediate danger. Much less the World Series.

The optics, however, would not be good. Baseball is swimming in cash, with strong attendance numbers and a smash-hit World Series in its wake. The sport is healthy.

Best not to let anything challenge that health.

    

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