For 25 years, labor peace has prevailed in Major League Baseball, players and ownership alike getting rich in the years after an eight-month work stoppage canceled the 1994 World Series and imperiled the ’95 season.
The players themselves enjoyed an even longer streak: Since Marvin Miller guided the MLB Players’ Association into its first collective bargaining agreement with owners in 1968, the game’s greatest stars enjoyed more than four decades of salary gains and an immeasurable boost to their quality of life.
But that streak has ended. And so, too, might more than a quarter-century without a work stoppage.
After a second consecutive winter that’s seen veteran players pushed to the margins of the game, and superstars forced to wait until deep into February – or longer – to receive what they feel is fair market value for their services, baseball’s stars and its rank and file are fixing for a fight.
Make no mistake: The current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t expire until 2021. The conditions players feel are suppressing their earning power – a luxury tax that serves as a de facto salary cap, a heavy reliance on analytics that leads to wage suppression, a segment of ownership disincentivized and perhaps ambivalent about winning – aren’t going away until then, if at all.
But players also realize that after MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has led owners on a winning streak that’s spanned two CBAs, they won’t be inclined to give back their gains.
So players are increasingly prepared to walk away in order to take the power back.
“Right now, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent, after ’21,” Philadelphia Phillies reliever Pat Neshek told USA TODAY Sports. “I won’t be around, so I don’t have a horse in the race. I don’t want to see a strike.
“But there’s always kind of been that handshake agreement where we’re still going to value the older guys and not just totally (expletive) on them. And that’s what’s happening. So, I think you’re going to have to burn the whole system down and start with that.
“(Owners) have a lot more to lose than us, I think. The players have been talking about, for the last couple of years, putting money aside and I think we’re going to be ready for a fight. We’re willing to go multiple years and I don’t know if (owners) are willing to sacrifice.”
Neshek, 39, who expects he’ll retire (or be forced into it) after the 2020 season, joins Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright in his explicit use of the s-word, a tack many players don’t necessarily agree with. But virtually all agree that current conditions are untenable.
While industry revenues topped $10 billion in 2018, average salaries remained flat and players’ percentage of revenue continued to fall, all while clubs have been shy handing out long-term deals and eager to manipulate the service time of elite players to delay their payday.
Dozens of valuable free agents remained unsigned as spring training camps opened, led by 26-year-old superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, whose combination of skills and youth were supposed to invigorate a slumbering market. Instead, they had fewer suitors than a blanket salesman in the Sahara, begging players to ask a sobering question: If Harper and Machado can’t generate a strong market, who among us can?
“The sum of all the parts has added up to the situation that we’re in,” Houston Astros ace Justin Verlander, a free agent after the 2019 season, told USA TODAY Sports. “I think some mistakes have been made on both sides, to be completely honest. But under the umbrella of what I love about the game and how good it can be and is, I think we can all agree some things need to be fixed.”
Yet, before they can engage the owners, the players must internally determine several factors:
What do they want? How best to get it? Which poison pills in the current CBA must they eradicate to regain what’s lost?
How willing are they to walk out – and stay out – if change proves elusive?
As MLBPA executive director Tony Clark begins his tour of spring camps to measure the pulse of his membership, USA TODAY Sports did the same, querying players from 10 clubs as many of their comrades remain unemployed.
“What do we do?” asks Phillies outfielder and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen. “What can we do to even the playing field on both sides? That’s the question.”
Here are some of the answers, a slowly emerging road map to the bargaining table that could lead to a better CBA and a more functional league – or a nuclear winter MLB hasn’t experienced this century:
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For decades, MLB and its players enjoyed a salary structure that was both merit-based and cost-friendly: Players with less than three years of service time had their salaries unilaterally determined by the club (usually right around the league minimum), followed by three seasons of salary arbitration and then the pot of gold: Free agency.
The rise of both analytics and a reliance on younger players gouged the players’ pie: Now, they’re likelier to have a club’s internal algorithm determine a free agent salary offer rather than a freewheeling general manager. Meanwhile, generational players like Mike Trout – a two-time MVP before he turned 26 – were achieving at historic rates but being paid like utility players.
Service-time suppression – the act of shipping worthy players like Kris Bryant, Ronald Acuna Jr. and, coming this March, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to the minor leagues to secure their rights an additional year – has further moved the goalposts. For those elite talents, it essentially takes seven years to reach free agency – only to get greeted by a marketplace that scoffs at older players.
How, then, do the players wrangle out of this triple jeopardy?
The overwhelming responses, all of which ownership could vigorously resist:
Grant players free agency after five years.
Grant them arbitration after two years.
Raise the minimum salary.
“Make that young, cheap labor not as cheap so that teams aren’t disincentivized from signing a veteran free agent in favor of a guy making the league minimum,” says Washington Nationals closer Sean Doolittle. “That could raise the floor, so to speak, but also protect jobs on the back end.
“You’ll see (veteran) guys whose phones just stop ringing. They might have two, three, four years of baseball still left in the tank, and guys used to be OK with getting underpaid and having their salaries somewhat suppressed in the first six years of their career because they’d make it up in free agency.
“Those deals are going away. So that could be a way to incentivize looking at those guys as viable options.”
Sounds great, right? There’s one significant catch, of course – the bargaining table.
“What are you going to have to give up for that?” wonders Atlanta reliever Darren O’Day.
It’s questionable how much players have left to give, after agreeing to hard draft slots and international signing limits in recent CBAs. Yet many are determined to overturn the salary structure – “We have to find a way to get the young guys to arbitration, to free agency quicker,” says Neshek – and that may only come with a walkout.
Players and their union have been consistent with one talking point – allow the system to function so the best players are showcased for fans. That rings somewhat hollow regarding veterans on the fringe of rosters, but hits the mark on service-time suppression.
In an era when baseball avidly seeks solutions to a perceived marketing deficit, grounding its emerging young stars for the first month of their rookie season is objectively counterintuitive.
Imagine Zion Williamson spending a few weeks in the G League before his NBA debut.
“We’re going to see it this year, right?” asks Phillies slugger Rhys Hoskins. “With Vlad Jr. Saw it with Kris Bryant.
“They’re being punished for being too good.”
For the best of the best, reducing free agency by a year would truly get them to freedom after six years, as the system is intended.
Mets lefty Jason Vargas echoes Doolittle’s theory that a higher minimum salary – which will be $555,000 this season – will force owners “to either trust a younger player for a lot of money, or a veteran player for just a little more money. Now, you have some choices to make.”
He also believes the cyclical nature of baseball’s marketplace will spare owners from financial ruin should the game move its pay schedule up one year.
“You have free agency one year earlier, yes, people are getting there at a younger age and at maybe a more successful age to sustain a longer contract,” says Vargas. “But as the game has shown, as time as shown, there will always be adjustments.”
It was hatched as a competitive balance tool, but now baseball’s luxury tax – which sets a threshold on spending above which teams will be penalized – appears to function as a salary cap.
Just two teams – the World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the Nationals – exceeded the 2018 threshold of $197 million and paid penalties.
The big-bucks New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers worked diligently to duck under that threshold to reduce their penalty rate, ostensibly to chase Harper and Machado with gusto this winter.
They have since sat out the bidding on both players, or so it appears, and again should duck under the now $206 million tax threshold.
And that’s a very low bar relative to the game’s revenues.
In 2008, the luxury tax threshold was $155 million, in a year the industry was estimated to generate $5.5 billion. Now, industry revenues top $10 billion annually, according to Forbes, and should only rise as lucrative local and national TV contracts come online.
So, in those 11 years, revenues rose 82 percent – but the luxury tax ceiling rose just 33 percent.
Players are kicking themselves for agreeing to such low ceilings – it will increase to just $210 million for 2021 – yet also questioning the owners’ behavior.
“If you look at how much money (MLB) is bringing in, I don’t think the luxury tax should be treated as a cap” says Verlander. “But if everybody gets together and says, ‘Hey, we’re not going to go over this,’ then it becomes one.
“That seems to me what they’ve done. You’ve just got a couple teams – really, only one – that says we’re going to go get talent, we’re going to pay for it and funny enough, they won the World Series.”
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O’Day does not mince words when it comes to extreme rebuilding, a practice that helped produce 10 teams that lost at least 89 games. “Tanking,” he says. “The T-word. It’s very clear it’s going on. Teams have set the precedent that that’s the way to turn a franchise around.
“But when you have two-thirds of the league tanking at the same time, it kind of makes it hard to watch.”
It certainly makes it hard to find jobs when clubs don’t wince at losing 100-plus games with a gaggle of minimum-wage performers. The Miami Marlins lost 98 games last season and in 2019 could have 16 players with less than two years of service time.
Naturally, you can’t force teams to spend money. Some players wonder if removing the guarantee of a high draft pick would reduce intentional underperformance. Mets infielder Todd Frazier suggests placing the 10 playoff teams at the back of the draft order, with the remaining 20 teams in a lottery.
Yet, this is an area the players may only win in the court of public opinion. Sure, baseball teams are a business, but they’re also a public trust of sorts, capable of engendering positive community vibes when the hometown nine is winning.
“Most owners are billionaires from other, multiple businesses,” says Phillies starter Jake Arrieta. “It seems like if you’re getting into the business of running a franchise, your ultimate goal should be to win. And I know for sure that’s what the Buck and Middleton families (Phillies owners) are doing here.
“But I don’t think, collectively, that that has been the mindset. Not that you have to be a George Steinbrenner. If you’re operating at a loss, I get it. But if you’re making a bunch of money…well, they’re billionaires. Billionaires, with a B. Spend it.
“We’re able to play a game for a living. But we eat, sleep, live, die for this game. We want to see – not just here in Philly, because the ownership here is fantastic, and there’s a tremendous amount of owners who are fantastic – but the mindset has changed.”
The Endless Winter
Baseball is a 12-month industry, with a rhythm virtually undisturbed for decades. But the off-season staring contest that now passes for free agency has disrupted the winter and now bleeds well into the spring.
It is not healthy for players, fans or executives. So, if the modern front office is committed to a reverse auction-style form of bidding, how best to move the proceedings along so superstars aren’t waiting until Presidents Day to find a job?
Braves utilityman Ender Inciarte suggests an off-season trade deadline, to spur early action and provide front offices clarity to pursue remaining holes via free agency.
“It’s tough to see other players have to go through this process, and at some point I’m going to be a free agent, too,” he says. “I don’t want to go through that. And you’re going to tell me with guys like Harper who haven’t signed, that fans don’t want to see guys like that wearing their uniform, knowing where they’re going to be?
“There have to be changes for sure, because this is not the right way.”
Arrieta and Vargas can relate. Despite coming off the best season of his career, Vargas did not receive the two-year, $16 million offer he accepted from the Mets until 2018 camp had opened. That meant he arrived as the bad guy, pegged for a fifth starter role others were ostensibly pursuing.
Arrieta didn’t join the Phillies until mid-March 2018. He may soon count Harper as a teammate, though he anticipates the young slugger, while surely in game shape, will struggle expediting the adjustment process to a new team.
“Look, we understand that you don’t maybe want to pay these astronomical numbers the players are looking for,” said Arrieta, entering the second year of a deal that guarantees him $75 million over three years. “But if you’re going to sign them, get them into camp. It’s going to behoove your team to get these players in as quick as you can.
“Whoever signs Bryce, whoever signs the laundry list of good players still out there, those teams are going to suffer, at least in the short term. It took me a minute to get going. That’s how it goes.”
That will ultimately be the goal when Manfred and Clark and their lawyerly lieutenants sit down. Neshek suggests they start sooner rather than later – the issues at hand are too significant to take down to the wire in 2021.
And after a period of prosperity that perhaps bred complacency in the ranks, the union has awoken.
As McCutchen describes the path ahead, he flags down fellow outfielder Nick Williams, who was passing near his locker. “You’re going to want to listen to this,” he tells the third-year player.
“We have to be collective here, as a team, as players, we have to work together,” says McCutchen. “These younger guys are thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’
“Us older guys, we have to be able to show them – this is what we have to do. We have to work together as a team.”
Perhaps even if it means walking out as a team.
Lacques reported from spring training camps from Florida