It’s pretty easy to say that the disagreements between Major League Baseball and the Players Association are about money. It’s not wrong to say so, either, as money certainly plays a central role in every labor dispute. The current kerfuffle is about more than just dollars and balance sheets, though, and it’s both unfair and incorrect to boil everything down to just that. There is an ideological dispute at the center of the proposals that the league and the union are trading back and forth, too, and that dispute is over the concept of choice.
Look at what the players have been proposing. They want to be free agents after five years of accrued service time instead of after six. They want to hit arbitration eligibility a year earlier, too, like they used to before the rules were changed for the worse during 1985’s collective bargaining. They want a higher minimum salary, not just because it’s more money, but because a higher minimum means players coming off of poverty-level minor-league wages might not feel as desperate to sign team-friendly extensions that end up cutting off free agency years and removing arbitration from their future, to boot.
All of these are about increasing choice. Baseball is already philosophically in conflict with the nation it represents as a pastime, through its institution of a draft; few other occupations prevent a person from deciding who they work for. Imagine earning that college degree and learning that you’ve been assigned to a corporation six states over with a terrible reputation for treating its employees, and yet we all accept that dozens of people are appointed as Colorado Rockies every year. And then being told that if you want to keep using that degree, you’d better learn to like it: quit, and it’s time to go sell cars.
Free agency after five years of service time is still a long time for a team to control one player, especially when you consider that this is just their big-league time: they’re under contract in the minors for seven years before they can become minor-league free agents, and those deals can be unilaterally renewed by the clubs in question without any kind of pay increase aside from the one you get for moving up a level. Sure, major prospects are going to get to the majors sooner than seven years, but let’s say you’re drafted out of college, for little or no signing bonus, then work your way up to the majors five or six years later. This is a rookie in or approaching their late 20s, who now won’t be a free agent in the majors—assuming they actually stick in the bigs from this point forward—for another six years. They might not actually have a chance to pick their team until no club actually wants to sign them because someone else younger can take that roster spot for a paycheck with fewer zeros in it instead.
Knowing arbitration is coming a year earlier is about getting to a more significant payday sooner, yes, but it, too, is about choice. Like with the higher minimum salary, knowing arbitration is on the horizon can convince a player to bet on themselves, and eschew the guaranteed dollars of a team-friendly extension. They can choose to assume risk, waiting out their chance for arbitration and avoiding giving up any of their free agency years unless the team is willing to give them a deal that is far more fair to both parties than the ones you see offered to… well, Ozzie Albies’ extension is an extreme case, sure, but it wasn’t signed out of nowhere, either.
Choice! Players want more choice, and it’s no wonder considering MLB continues to let various economic levers the players previously utilized fall into disrepair—the 2016 collective bargaining agreement was a real mask-off moment in this regard, but no one on the players’ side seemed to notice until after the ink had dried. They have noticed now, though, which is why the two sides are not just semi-amicably plotting the destruction of the future of the players’ organizing strength, and are instead at odds because, well, the players won’t semi-amicably help to plot the destruction of their own organizing strength.
The owners, on the other hand, do not want the players to have more choice. Teams are thrilled with the status quo, because they have benefited immensely from it. It’s what allows these very one-sided team-friendly deals to exist. It’s what allows clubs to ignore arbitration-eligible players and free agents in favor of a system where less than 10% of total player compensation is paid to the pre-arb players accruing well over half of the service time. They don’t want players to have more choice: they want players to have less of it.
While owners around the league might love the status quo, they would be happier if they could get some new loopholes to exploit in writing that also serve to codify the current issues. So, that’s how you end up with the response to the proposal of, “what if players were arbitration-eligible sooner?” with “what if we just get rid of arbitration and let the algorithms handle the rest?” It’s why they met concerns about the length of time it takes to get to free agency with a proposal that is fraught with its own set of problems, without even necessarily solving those it’s supposedly meant to. And this is without even bringing up how creating these complicated, negotiated systems that are meant to serve as something of a neutral third-party, be they a pay-by-WAR setup or letting prospect rankings decide whether teams can earn compensation picks for promoting their good players to the majors sooner than later, are mostly meant to allow MLB to wash their hands of any blame. If things once again go sideways under the new CBA, with loopholes constantly being jumped through and interpretations being taken to the absolute extreme as they were with service time following the 2016 CBA, we will simply get the same kind of defense as was given then: well, the players agreed to this, and MLB is not to blame for any of it. That’s by design. It’s a design that worked to perfection in the past, but we’re beyond the era of blind trust in the algorithms.
Choice is anathema to the teams: decades and decades and decades of MLB’s history were written during a time in which there was no choice at all, thanks to the reserve clause. A player who can choose his employer pits those teams in competition for their services, in the same way that players are continually in conflict with each other, despite their union. The protection of an antitrust exemption always meant MLB was in a position to do whatever they had to do to keep any potential competitors from arriving on the scene and giving players a choice, and even before those days, MLB always found a way to either destroy or absorb the competition, limiting the choices of players, and their salaries, once again.
Again, this is about more than money. Yes, more choice means players will be in a position to have more opportunities to make more money, or, at least, be able to have more of a handle on their own destiny, for good or ill, but it’s having that choice or not that is at the center of the labor dispute between the league and the union. The league would love to limit choice as much as possible—they know going back to the reserve clause isn’t possible, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to stop trying to get as close as they can to those days again, at least ideologically, and the last 20 or so years of clear victories over the union in bargaining are part of a long-term project that gets them there. And the players, after realizing what not pushing back for far too long has brought them, once again recognize that there is more at stake than just the present-day paychecks: that the power of future union members are at stake, too, and that accepting fewer choices in the present will leave their successors weaker than they can afford to be.
It’s unclear which side’s ideology will win out—will the owners hold fast to their lockout even if it ends up costing them first spring training and then in-season revenue, or will the players be the first to prioritize present-day pay over the long-term struggle they’re in? Those questions are what this is about. The league, after 2016, felt it was approaching the end of their project to limit player choice, but they pushed too far too quickly, and those players are now all too aware of what was going on. The owners want to continue on the path they set out on under Bud Selig; the players want to double back. It’s about the money, yes, but this labor battle is about more than just that.
Marc Normandin currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more at marcnormandin.com, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon. His baseball writing has appeared at SB Nation, Defector, Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, The Nation, and TalkPoverty, and you can read his takes on retro video games at Retro XP.
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