As with the old axioms about offensive linemen, umpires and prophylactics, when CBA rules are working properly you never hear about them. Yet here we are, with Kris Bryant’s predicament perhaps the major story of spring training: The Cubs can’t bring him north without burning a year of club control (in 2021), and they can’t send him to Triple-A Iowa without incurring the wrath of Baseball Twitter’s moral majority. It’s a conundrum many teams have faced over the past few years, some in March (to potentially push back free agents), others in May and June (to stall arbitration raises by a year). Each creates a legitimate dilemma, and there’s no wrong answer, given the needlessly complicated rules in place. Which is the point: We’re talking about this because the rules have broken down.
But the Bryant situation—the service time situation—is part of a bigger issue that deserves a longer discussion. In the next year, negotiations will begin on the next collective bargaining agreement. While the Bryant topic is too hot to ignore, talking about it in isolation doesn’t make sense. We need to talk about the big conversation. So let’s do that. The goal here is not to start trading horses—I’m not familiar enough with the mentalities of the owners or of the players association—but to examine and name them. Let’s run through the major things the next CBA will need to address, and make a preliminary proposal or two.
The Service-Time Two-Step
Since it brought us together today, let’s start with the Bryant Problem. Right now, a team has the rights to a player until he reaches six full seasons of service time. There are 183 days in an MLB season and 172 in a full year of service, which is why Bryant gets that full season only if he joins the team sometime within the season’s first fortnight. Most players reach arbitration after they accrue three full seasons, but there are special cases. Of guys with between two and three years, the 22 percent with the highest accrual (Super Twos) get arbitration, too. For really good players, the salary difference between being Super Two-eligible and not can be $3 million or more per year, across four years, so teams try to wait until players are likely to land on the right side of that cut line before bringing them up, when possible.
These rules have undergone some changes over the 40 years since free agency came to MLB, but for the past two decades they’ve all been tweaks. (For instance, the last CBA moved the Super Two threshold from 17 percent to 22 percent—a tweak, not a game-changer.) During the run-up to the 1994 strike, the owners proposed a deal that would eliminate arbitration completely and make players free agents after four years, but there were two unacceptable riders on that proffer: a salary cap, and the right for players’ incumbent teams to match the market’s best offer during the first two years of agency. There was no way, just a few years removed from a stretch of four years during which the owners openly colluded against the players, that the MLBPA was going to accept those terms. The mistrust between the parties nixed a deal that, in hindsight, would have headed off a lot of the problems we’re encountering now.
That mistrust hasn’t gone anywhere, but it has taken a back seat to a spirit of cooperation. The owners have learned not to overreach, taking their miles of territory back inches at a time, and the players have agreed to pretend not to notice as long as the number of millionaires in their ranks keeps steadily soaring. In light of that, it might be time to implement a (limited) version of that old plan. A salary cap in MLB is a non-starter, and the owners are not only okay with that, but learning to make it an advantage. Teams pay out a smaller share of their total revenue to players in MLB than in the NFL or the NBA, where salary caps do exist. Arbitration is a permanent fixture, too. Too many MLBPA members need it to make anything more than the league minimum before they wash out of the league for good. Changing the terms of team control might be possible, though, if the right balance were struck.
First, let’s define a framework that solves our primary problem. The frustrating thing about Bryant’s and similar situations is the feeling of farce around it, a feeling fueled by the short window for which the player must be banished in order to get them under the cut line. Sending a player down for two weeks to manipulate his service clock is silly. Even to the extent that it’s the optimal choice, and indeed, the only defensible choice, it’s silly. So the thing to do is to push the cutoff out into the middle of the season, where a team has to give away a significant chunk of short-term value to capture the long-term value of that seventh season of control. To do so, the standard for free agency just needs to be changed, from players needing at least six full years of service to players having something that rounds to six full years of service. Under that definition, any player with at least five years and 86 days of service when a given season ends would qualify. That forces a team hell-bent on claiming extra control to wait until after the All-Star break to call up the stud prospect. It would still happen—crucially, please understand this, it will always still happen—but it would happen a lot less, and to a different subset of players, and to a less competitive subset of teams.
Getting ownership to agree to that change will be difficult. If a single season of restricted free agency (think the current qualifying offer system, but with a player’s previous team having the right to match the offer if another team makes it, and keep the player in question) were palatable to players, owners might accept it, but that would be a tough sell. Perhaps easier would be giving up the Super Two eligibility for more free agency. Twenty-six players reached Super Two status this winter. Thirty-two currently have enough time put in to qualify for free agency under this alternative proposal, but not enough to qualify under the current rules. (Of course, those numbers would break out differently if the rules set different incentives.) Would the players give away those early arbitration cases in order to get more players to free agency sooner? Would the owners demand something more, even if they did? Again, I can’t say. Whatever secondary trading of rights has to go on to facilitate it, though, the rule has to change.
It’s time for the DH to come to the National League. Check that; it’s well past time. It was time, at the latest, when they started playing interleague games. Pitchers are worse hitters than ever. The presence of the DH gives American League teams more room for error in all their avenues of player acquisition. Tradition isn’t a good enough reason to keep up this pointless division.
This will have to be collectively bargained, of course. No document of which I’m aware explicitly enumerates it as a rule that falls under the umbrella of collective bargaining, but after the last round of CBA negotiations—which were unprecedented in the inclusion of individual player input, and in their comprehensiveness—there’s no question that a major rule change like this one would demand MLBPA’s stamp of approval. Conventional wisdom has been that the union would accept an expansion of the DH almost anytime, though, because it stands to keep veterans employed longer and create more jobs for players who might otherwise have limited roles, or no roles at all. In this case, the conventional wisdom seems sound.
Owners would view this as a concession, not only for the reasons touched on above, but because the NL’s owners would have to sell the change to many of its less enlightened, tradition-bound fans. However, they might go along with it just to preserve one of the last CBA’s new inventions.
The Qualifying Offer
This is a broken system. It’s not the most egregious one in MLB—well, some might argue it is—but it is one, nonetheless. Other than the fact that the union seemed to forget how to say “no” to Rob Manfred 10 years ago, I can offer no explanation of the fact that they ever accepted the construct. In three offseasons under the qualifying-offer system, 34 players have received an offer, forcing whichever team signs them to give up their highest unprotected draft pick. Nine have been significantly hurt by that status. That’s not a huge percentage, but it’s more than enough to make people take notice. MLBPA Director Tony Clark voiced concern last February, then (after the Stephen Drew and Kendrys Morales debacles turned out even worse than he might have imagined at the time of those remarks) rattled an ominous saber just last month.
The owners’ biggest interest in issues like these is tamping down the top of the market, keeping salary growth for the league’s highest salaries as slow as possible. The players generally have the broader interests of their membership in mind, and will trade away the best possible outcome for elite players in order to get the best one for the lower tiers. Still, it was an ugly misstep to give it away in the last negotiation, and if the owners want to keep it this time around Clark is likely to make them pay for it. That might mean adding the DH; it might mean capitulating in whatever talks center on fixing the Bryant problem. It could also come in the form of an expansion to 26-man active rosters, or increased pay for minor leaguers, or a bigger-than-usual hike in minimum salary. Just know that, if the offer is to stay in place, it won’t survive easily, because it’s terrible. The MLBPA was a doormat, in 2002, in 2006 and in 2011. Clark doesn’t sound inclined to continue that tradition.
An International Draft, and the Workings of the Domestic One
By now, you should be familiar with the cliché: The players’ union gleefully trades away the rights of draftees and teenage signees every time they reach the negotiating table, because those players aren’t union members. Before the CBA signed late in 2006, for instance, teams who failed to sign a high draft pick (the first three rounds) got only a sandwich pick in the following year’s draft. So, under those rules, the 2014 Astros would have had to choose between signing Brady Aiken or biting the bullet and getting only the 31st (or so) pick in the 2015 Draft. Veterans gave away that rule, and with it a bunch of 18-year-olds’ leverage. That same CBA also lengthened the number of years before a minor leaguer had to be placed on the 40-man roster to four or five, from three or four.
If anything, the most recent CBA represents an even more aggressive forking over of amateurs’ rights. You probably know these changes more intimately already, since the document many of us can’t stop calling “the new CBA” is actually three years old, but to recap: A hard-capped pool system limits spending in the June Draft, slowing any growth in payouts substantially, and a similar structure doles out severe punishments to teams who far outspend new limits on international amateur spending. (Teams continue to willfully incur the penalties in the international market, but the penalties are very real.)
This time around, MLB’s highest priority in this arena is instituting an international draft. Manfred has repeatedly gone to the term “single modality of entry” as he stumps for the change. He used it in Indians camp just this week, while selling the concept as a potential boon for competitive balance. He also has a tremendous financial windfall to help fund the initiative, thanks to the unusual Yoan Moncada signing. Clark, to his credit, isn’t giving away the farm yet. On Wednesday, he noted that challenges have always overwhelmed the idea, which has come up during the last three negotiations. However, he still dropped in the words “single entry” along the way, and didn’t address the fact that the owners seem much more serious about the idea this time around.
The smart money says there will be an international draft, and eventually a unified draft, within the next five years. For my part, I think people sweat that far too much. While it’s regrettable that the union has taken such a consistently weak position on the preservation of draftees’ rights and the protection of their ability to earn as much as possible, the very existence of a draft shouldn’t be anathema to anyone. It’s not like Latin American teenagers are being scouted, courted and signed ethically as it is. A draft would limit their earning potential, but not significantly more than the bonus caps to which the union agreed (irretrievably, it seems to me) in 2011. Scouts and scout-lovers cried rat when the draft was put in place 50 years ago, and they weren’t totally wrong, but they weren’t totally right, either. Prospects will still be fun to track and hear about. Teams will still employ fascinatingly varied strategies for acquiring and developing young talent. There’s an utterly inevitable new framework coming. Stop worrying and love the bomb.
The Playoffs, The Season, The Schedule
The players may not care (much) how amateurs are treated on their way into affiliated ball, but they care very much about the day-to-day grind of an MLB season. That’s going to make for some interesting discussions about the structural aspects of the game, because there are some glaring issues that need to be addressed.
The wild card game has been refreshingly non-disastrous so far, but the league is playing with fire under the current system. A one-game play-in at the end of a 162-game marathon season is a farce, even if it has produced a few exciting contests during the first three years of its existence. A three-game miniseries is not much better, but it does something to lessen the absurdity of the show. The future of the wild card round is a best-of-three series, with one game played at the home park of the team with the worse record, then two at the home of the team with the better one.
Fitting that into the league’s current schedule would be impossible, though. No one has any appetite for a longer baseball season, especially when that might push the World Series into November in New York, Boston, Chicago, or (Heaven forbid) Minnesota. Yet the players won’t—and shouldn’t be expected to, because they have a rough travel itinerary already—consent to a more compact schedule. Hence the need for a return to the 154-game season. Manfred left the possibility of that open in interviews last month.
This is a dizzyingly difficult problem to solve, logistically. Players have to be willing to take five percent less money. (Or do they?) Owners have to be guaranteed some way to make up for the lost inventory, especially because they’ve committed themselves to lucrative regional TV deals that call for 162 contests. (Or do they?) Sam Miller wrote a tremendous article several weeks ago, breaking down the pace-of-play kerfuffle and pointing out that, really, the thing that most turns off casual fans is that MLB plays too many damn games. This would only very slightly alleviate that problem, but it would do so, in addition to making room for the expanded Wild Card series. It would have to be worked out monetarily, but given the stories we so (painfully) often see about the TV ratings of individual games and the fact that injuries spike late in the season due to the sheer length and difficulty of The Grind, it’s safe to say that not every game lost means revenue or value lost, anyway.
So we need a shorter season to accommodate a very modestly expanded postseason. It won’t be pretty, but it’s doable. Those changes will happen, if not during this negotiation, then during the next one. Now, here’s a problem I’m much less confident about seeing resolved: The schedule is a mess.
Forget the intermittence and inequity of the interleague schedule. (At least adding a DH will partially solve that.) Right now, teams play 76 games (or so) against their divisional rivals each season. Very nearly half the schedule is made up of four opponents, drawn from a pool of 29. Each club directly competes for two playoff spots (as we’ll come to know them; right now, let’s say for halves of one) with 10 teams who play a radically, often unfairly, different schedule than they do. That just can’t continue, though it probably will.
Owners don’t want a balanced schedule. Owners want lots and lots of rivalry games. ESPN really wants the Yankees and Red Sox to play 30 times a year. Ratings, attendance and interest skyrocket when the local nine is playing whatever team the fan base most loves to hate. Divisional games make tons of money.
Divisional games are also, in most cases, nearby games. The unbalanced schedule puts a natural limit on the number of air miles a team logs during the season. Any more balanced one would require either very careful scheduling, or more off days during the season. Remember, an MLB without divisions was almost a thing in 2011. It didn’t happen, though, and I suspect the reason is that owners couldn’t make enough guarantees to the MLBPA about the schedule being sufficiently Grind-proofed. I suspect you’ll hear similar rumblings sometime between now and the 2016 World Series, but that nothing will come of it. Unless and until modern mass transportation takes a quantum leap, a balanced schedule will remain out of reach, just as an MLB team in Mexico City will.
I haven’t—I couldn’t, possibly, and even if I could, I’ve taken up enough of your time—listed everything that will be in the news and that will have an impact on the forthcoming negotiations. For you amateur labor lawyers out there, though, it’s a foundation for conversations about which concessions are reasonable, and which are ludicrous, on both sides of the aisle. Off-field discussions will take a back seat to the genuine article in just a couple of weeks, but right now is the time to think broadly about the game’s future. Kris Bryant is going to keep hitting home runs in Arizona, against Double-A pitching. Watching too many of them, taking them in as data and mistaking them for information, will only harm you, and make you even angrier when someone tweets a picture of him sadly waving goodbye to the team shuttle on April 3rd.
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now