The calendar turned over to February less than a week ago, yet Major League Baseball still finds itself in pretty much the same position it did two months ago when the owners locked out the players and left the offseason at a standstill without a Collective Bargaining Agreement.
Now, the two sides are at odds again following MLB’s request for a federal mediator, which the MLB Players Association swiftly rejected in a press release on Friday afternoon.
“The clearest path to a fair and timely agreement is to get back to the table. Players stand ready to negotiate,” the MLBPA’s release concluded.
In isolation, the fact that the MLBPA rejected the league’s request for mediation makes it look like the players are obstructing negotiations by not taking up the request for a third party to come in and try to bridge the gap between the two sides.
“It is hard to understand why a party that wants to make an agreement would reject mediation from the federal agency specifically tasked with resolving these disputes,’’ an MLB spokesman said in a statement.
In reality, that feels like the opposite of what appears to be happening in these negotiations.
Dating back to the very start of the lockout, the league and its owners have come across as disingenuous about where they stand within the negotiations.
Here’s an extract from the letter to baseball fans that Commissioner Rob Manfred wrote at the start of the lockout — a lockout which they claim was “forced” though they literally chose to do it instead of maintaining the status quo, but anyway...
“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.”
Right, given that the CBA had just expired, locking the players out to try to increase some urgency on their side to come to a deal makes sense. So, after locking the players out, the league got back to negotiating a new CBA relatively promptly, right? Right?!
Wrong. Instead, the league didn’t even come back to the table to negotiate for 43 days. Not even a whisper of minor talks surrounding subjects other than the core economics.
So much for utilizing the lockout as a tool to try and “jumpstart” negotiations.
It also feels a bit rich to talk about how the Players Association is trying to threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive when the owners are doing a mighty fine job of that themselves by suppressing their payrolls year-on-year since the last CBA was agreed.
This is a good visual representation of MLB estimated revenues via Forbes, the average Opening Day Payroll via the AP, and the CBT first tier. Graph pulled together by The Athletic. It tells the story: revenues vastly outpacing CBT and player salaries. pic.twitter.com/dxIwMZ4JeH— Maury Brown (@BizballMaury) February 4, 2022
This next part was probably the weirdest part of the entire letter from Manfred though.
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.
Woah! It’s almost as if there was a pseudo-deadline with some sort of agreement expiring at the end of the month that teams and players wanted to get business done before or something...
Following no movement in December, MLB finally came back with a proposal to the Players Association on January 13th. However, instead of making concessions, MLB’s new proposal reportedly had barely budged on the core economics compared to its previous proposal prior to the lockout.
Despite being disgruntled at the proposal and the little progress from before the lockout, the MLBPA responded relatively swiftly with a counter-proposal of their own on January 24th.
This resulted in what has been reported as a “heated” meeting between the two sides and included Colorado Rockies owner, Dick Monfort crying poor when he “complained about the difficulty at least some owners have affording teams,” per The Athletic’s Evan Drellich.
Remember that graph earlier on in this article showing how average MLB team revenues continues to grow exponentially while the Competitive Balance Tax and average Opening Day payroll stagnate in comparison? That makes it hard to believe these owners are truly struggling to afford to run their teams. If they actually were, there’s always the option to sell their teams for what would likely be a 10-digit sum. Oh, woe is the owners!
Anyway, also in that bargaining session, it appears as though the players began to make noteworthy concessions in their proposal compared to how things were a couple of months earlier.
According to Drellich, the Players Association's proposal removed its initial ask of having players reach free agency before six years of service time, which is currently the case for players. The proposal also lessened their proposed changes to MLB’s revenue sharing.
It was never expected that this proposal would be the one that the owners accepted, but by making a couple of key concessions in their proposal, the union seemingly showed a willingness to make a deal happen and were no doubt hoping it would create momentum in the talks.
Did it create momentum in the core economic talks? I think you know the answer by now.
The following day, the league came back seemingly agreeing, in principle, to some of the PA’s proposals, but massively reducing the money going to the players, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported.
A couple more meetings later, according to Drellich, MLB said they would provide another counter-proposal this week.
Now they’re making progress, albeit incremental, right? Nope, any progress was steamrolled by MLB requesting federal mediation instead of their promised counter.
Had MLB’s owners actually backed up their words and made significant concessions to show a willingness to negotiate, then maybe they could claim that their request for federal mediation was in good faith to help resolve some key impasses.
Given what the two sides have done to this point though, it just seems like yet another disingenuous PR stunt, knowing that the players would reject mediation — especially as mediation didn’t go down too well with the union during the 1994-95 labor dispute — in an attempt to paint the MLBPA as the side that’s not cooperating in these negotiations.
Without a counter-proposal from the owners and the players not falling for what seemed like bait in the league’s request for mediation, a deal still seems a long way away.
Players were supposed to begin reporting for Spring Training in just over a week. Barring a miracle, that’s going to be delayed for an indefinite amount of time. Spring Training games will almost certainly be lost now and Opening Day is in serious jeopardy as well.
If games are missed, be it Spring Training or regular season, there’s only really one side to look at who hasn’t appeared to negotiate in good faith to this point, and it’s not the players...