Major League Baseball and the players' union, the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA), are presently negotiating the parameters of what a 2020 season will look like, should such a thing be realized.
A number of essential issues must be agreed upon before baseball moves forward -- roster rules, safety protocols in response to COVID-19, and the schedule and postseason format among them. Most pressing and most fraught, however, are the economic issues.
To quickly recap, players back in March agreed to prorate their 2020 salaries based on the number of games played. Given that something like an 82-game season is the probable path, that's a salary cut of roughly 50 percent. The MLBPA is of the position that the matter of compensation was put to rest with that agreement. Owners, however, interpret the agreement as allowing them to reopen negotiations in the event that fans will not be allowed to attend games for some or all of the season. That's going to be the case, which is why the two sides are now in talks. Owners floated a 50-50 revenue split, but players quite understandably objected. Players then floated the idea of deferring part of the salaries due, while owners proposed some salary reductions that would hit the highest-paid players the hardest. The union took umbrage at that revised proposal, and here we are in the current state of uncertainty.
There's still time to reach an accord and begin a 2020 regular season in early July as both sides hope (assuming the pandemic cooperates), but things don't seem to be going all that well. To be sure, what we know about the back and forth is mostly thanks to calculated leaks from the ownership side, which is an effort to turn public opinion against the players and use that as a cudgel. While the idiocy of souring the public on the product you hope to resume selling them is obvious, portraying players as greedy and disloyal has been a self-defeating indulgence on the part of MLB owners since time immemorial. This recent unearthing of that "strategy" hints at the tensions between the two sides.
The guess here remains that, MLB posturing aside, an agreement is reached and the decks are cleared for baseball in 2020. Even so, these current labor-management hostilities could be a prelude to a larger battle in the near future. That's because the current collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is set to expire after the 2021 season. The CBA is the negotiated agreement that governs almost every aspect of the working relationship between management (the clubs) and labor (the players). While we've had a long run of labor peace in baseball -- the sport has gone without a labor stoppage since 1995 -- there's reason to fear that may end with the next round of negotiations. In addition to the current antagonism over the 2020 negotiations, there are three other reasons for worry insofar as the next CBA is concerned.
Last time we came fairly close to a stoppage
The last CBA was set to expire on Dec. 1, 2016, and players and owners didn't reach a preliminary agreement until the day before that deadline. Very likely, we were within hours of a lockout. Finally, the two sides were able to reach an agreement on a variety of matters. That it came down to the wire and that a labor stoppage was very much in play is concerning given that the issues facing the two sides in 2021 are likely much more complicated. Speaking of which ...
Several complex issues are in play
Even before the pandemic descended upon us, the 2021 negotiations figured to be sprawling and complicated. 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), and the tanking boomlet, among other matters.
Priority No. 1 will be increasing the players' share, but that will not be easily accomplished. Teams' increasing reliance on young, cost- and team-controlled talent has cascaded through other markets for talent and depressed all but the top-most wages. Given recent circumstances, the best way to lift all boats is probably to press to make younger players more fairly compensated. That means significantly raising the minimum salary (over and above the usual minimum salary increases that accompany a new CBA) and perhaps lowering the service time threshold for arbitration and free agency. None of that happens without significant give-backs or a strike. The union, frankly, is running out of paths to give away the rights of draftees and minor leaguers, so perhaps their play -- cynical though it may be -- is to dangle approval of an international draft. If that's not enough to lead a package of exchange concessions, then a strike is the likely way forward.
Related to the drop in the players' share of revenues is that the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT) -- or "luxury tax" -- on payrolls has come to serve as a soft cap. The owners aren't going to weaken it given how well it's accomplished the unstated objective, which is to reduce labor costs. The form the CBT takes in the next CBA has the potential for another conflagration at the bargaining table. That's especially the case since the increase in the CBT threshold hasn't come close to keeping pace with revenue growth in MLB.
More uncertainty and another free agent freeze-out could be ahead
It is of course entirely possible and perhaps even likely that the 2021 season will also be compromised by the pandemic. That's to say nothing of the 2020-21 offseason, in which free agent spending will almost certainly be tamped down because of the revenue loss of this year. That will be a legitimate reaction to some extent, but owners are certainly not above using the crisis as tidy rationale to avoid investing in payroll. With free agents like Mookie Betts, J.T. Realmuto, George Springer, and Trevor Bauer slated to hit the market next winter, it should be a healthy top of the market. Chances are, though, it won't be. Last winter brought a bit of a renaissance of the free agent market, but the stalemate of the prior winter is still in the minds of players. It's likely to happen again this coming offseason, and that will be the lead-in to the final season under the current CBA.
Right now, our attention and the efforts of owners and players are upon the matter of the 2020 season, which is how it should be. Once that menu of issues is resolved, however, this next big MLB-MLBPA standoff moves into focus. Recent events and the uncertainty of the future figure to make what was already going to be a challenging negotiation even more perilous. It's entirely possible the long era of labor peace -- or, more accurately stated, the long era of the MLBPA permitting itself to be dominated by ownership without a genuine fight -- may be at an end.