In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and in anticipation that fans won't be allowed in ballparks in typical numbers for at least some of the 2021 season, Major League Baseball (MLB) and the MLB Players Association (MLBPA) have been kinda-sorta negotiating over the structure of the upcoming season. This is because team owners find the current rules unsatisfactory and want to revisit them. In other words, these talks aren't necessary -- they represent a disruptive choice being made by MLB and its 30 constituent team owners. That's an important context as we consider what's going on.
You'll recall that similar discussions took place prior to last season, and they didn't go very well -- largely because of MLB's tendency to make what was in essence the same offer over and over again. In that sense, it's not surprising that this round of talks ranged from fruitless to pointless.
At this juncture in our journey into this tedious subplot, you might have some questions -- questions that may rightly be characterized as … frequently asked. Let us now answer them.
Why are we even having negotiations?
Frankly stated, we're having "negotiations" because team owners are foisting them upon the players. The 2021 season is already covered in full by the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA), which is the negotiated document that governs every aspect of the labor-management relationship in MLB. However, because MLB expects that the 2021 season will be complicated by COVID-19, hte league is trying to re-negotiate certain aspects of the CBA.
Yes, vaccinations are ongoing, but teams aren't likely to be able to hold full attendance at their home games for some time. That of course means at least a partial loss of gate, parking, and concessions revenues, and that means owners will be seeking some protection for those potential losses. To be sure, teams almost certainly exaggerated the scale of their 2020 losses, and 2021 might even wind up profitable (albeit less profitable than non-pandemic years). Yet MLB ownership isn't going to let a crisis go to waste, and that's why they're seeking to alter the structure of the 2021 season even though said structure should be considered a settled matter.
How have those negotiations gone so far?
Not especially well, to the extent that they're negotiations in any meaningful sense of the term. At first, MLB offered to implement the universal DH and kick in additional cash in exchange for an expanded postseason (likely to 14 teams rather than to last year's 16-team playoff field), but the players wisely rejected that offer. That's because the universal DH is a very modest giveback for something as lucrative to ownership as an expanded postseason (more on that in a moment). Presumably, the additional money MLB offered to pony up wasn't sufficient to get the MLBPA on board. And, again, MLBPA is under no obligation to re-open the already settled CBA for re-negotiation, no matter what happened during the spring and summer shutdown last year.
Anyhow, MLB then offered to pay players for a full 162 games even though they also proposed a regular-season schedule of 154 games. That latest offer also entailed pushing the season back a month and extending it a week, which would mean a bunch of doubleheaders. Most essentially, the expanded postseason was still being asked of the players. Some players object to making such drastic schedule changes this late in the baseball calendar, when offseason training routines and ramp-up protocols have been tailored to the usual start date. Most essentially, though, the owners are still asking for an expanded postseason despite not offering any significant give-backs of their own. That's why the latest MLB offer was a no-go, and on Monday night the MLBPA announced it was rejecting the proposal.
Why would the players turn down that latter offer?
Because an expanded postseason largely benefits the owners, not the players. According to the terms of the CBA -- stunning use of italics forthcoming -- all postseason television revenues go to the owners. The players, in turn, get a share of the gate revenues, which is a significantly smaller slice of the pie. Given that it's not certain fans will be allowed to attend 2021 postseason games in typical numbers, tacking games onto the postseason isn't remotely worthwhile for the players, at least absent a share of those television revenues. Owners were able to persuade the players to expand the postseason in 2020 by giving them a chunk of those TV monies, but so far that hasn't been on the table for 2021.
Beyond that, expanding the postseason permanently -- and approving it for 2021 would be another step toward permanence -- would likely serve as a further drag on the free-agent market. Lower the bar for contention, which is what an expanded postseason does, and teams aren't going to spend as much. Even at the top end, the idea of having to claw through another round of the playoffs is a disincentive for teams like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, and Mets to fortify rosters they already see as being playoff-worthy. Given the extent to which owners over-respond to spending disincentives, the players are loath to give them more reasons to eschew free agents.
There's also another level to it. Leading up to the more substantial negotiations next offseason (more on that below), the players aren't likely to give away a strong bargaining piece like the expanded postseason unless it's in exchange for something of similar import. From the players' standpoint, they'd presumably like to address their shrinking share of league revenues, the occasional practice of service-time manipulation (i.e., when teams hold back a clearly ready prospect in order to delay his free agency or arbitration eligibility for a full year), tanking, the failure of the minimum salary to keep pace with revenue growth in the sport, and teams' increasing treatment of the luxury tax threshold as a hard cap, among other matters. Addressing any of those things will be a heavy lift. Given the players' dwindling supply of leverage points, approval of a larger and longer postseason isn't going to come cheap. Owners know this, of course.
Nevertheless, MLB released a statement in which they lamented the players' decision to pass on their most recent offer. MLB claimed that proposing to push back the season was merely a good-faith effort to start the season at a time when COVID infection rates -- and vaccination rates -- figure to be in better territory. If, however, player safety was truly the prevailing concern for MLB, then they would've proposed that schedule shift by itself and not appended to it a call for expanded playoffs, which benefits owners far more than players.
David Samson broke down the MLB/MLBPA talks on the latest episode of Nothing Personal with David Samson. Listen below:
Will the players be making a counter-proposal?
Almost certainly not. If the MLBPA even made a counter-proposal to the owners, then doing so would in effect reopen the CBA for discussion. Why would the union do that in the absence of strong incentives? This is basically the owners saying to the players, "Would you be willing to amend the rules we've already agreed to and do so in a way that makes the rules more advantageous to our side?"
The only rational response to that is, "No."
This was never a negotiation because there was nothing to negotiate. The owners were attempting to negotiate something that had already been settled -- i.e., the CBA -- and the players very rightly weren't having it.
What happens now without an agreement?
The season structure will be governed by the current CBA, which is how it almost always is. That would mean, among other things, no DH in the National League and a playoff field of 10 teams. This point bears repeating for the third time or so: The 2021 season already has an agreed-upon framework in force. The owners want to change it.
This doesn't mean that things like the universal DH and expanded playoff field can't be revisited before Opening Day, but it does mean the owners' desires to push back the start of the season are going to come to grief.
How will this affect future negotiations?
There seems to be increasing acrimony between players and owners and increasing distrust of the owners' financial claims. Layer on top of that the many serious issues facing the game in terms of how revenues are divided, and it's entirely possible that we see MLB's first labor stoppage since 1994-95. It could come as quickly as December in the form of a lockout by owners. If such worst-case scenarios come to pass, then it's possible we'll see three straight seasons compromised -- two by COVID and one by good ol' labor strife.
Hey, here's to actual on-field baseball and the uncertain promise of it.