At a time when the goal should be for society to band together to make sure everyone is taken care of, Major League Baseball seems to be sketching out a blueprint for the powerful to exploit the coronavirus pandemic to short shrift its workers.
The Associated Press reported on Thursday that MLB is “considering skipping its amateur draft this year and putting off the next international signing period as a way to preserve cash while games are affected.”
It’s not just a matter of MLB putting a sort of hiring freeze into place. The league also “has proposed crediting full service for 130 games or more and proportional service for a shorter season,” while the Major League Baseball Players Association “has taken the position that a full season of service should be credited even if no games are played.”
Players are going to be expected to keep themselves ready to play, likely with a truncated ramping-up period, as soon as it’s deemed safe to resume professional sports. They are not on vacation and not holding out in a labor action. Like workers across all segments of the economy, baseball players would prefer to be doing their jobs as normal, but cannot because of a situation beyond anyone’s control.
Instead, players are working from home just like so many others. Earlier this week, Cleveland pitcher Adam Plutko’s wife, Allison, posted an adorable video of her husband throwing a ball against a wall alongside their son Tucker. More bluntly, a few days ago, Plutko’s rotation mate Zach Plesac tweeted, “Crazy times right now.. we’re gonna stay ready on this side but health is #1, & we gotta keep each other safe! See you soon”
The players might not be in Cactus League and Grapefruit League games right now, but they are working, and any attempt by MLB to deny that they are putting in service time is bunk. Is it possible that the league and union will need to work something out when it comes to paying salaries at a time when revenue streams are shut off? It is, and as will be the case across many industries, that will be a tricky thing to negotiate. To try to deny the existence of time, though, and to act like just because there are fewer games, baseball players aren’t putting in full work, when the game has become a year-round job, should not even be a debate.
The idea of not having a draft and international signing period serves a similar anti-labor purpose. If, suddenly, next year’s draft becomes a forum to select two years’ worth of draft classes, there will be first-round talent picked in the second round, and paid second-round money for signing bonuses. Players who could have been second-round picks will become third- or fourth-round picks, and suffer similarly. With a cap on international spending already in place and that labor market flooded, there would be a similar dampening effect.
Is there a good reason for this? No. Most draft picks spend the summer in short-season ball, where they’re just getting a taste of professional life before really beginning their road to the majors in earnest the following spring. Most international signees don’t even come to the United States until the year after they’re signed at the earliest.
Part of the justification for suspending the draft is that, as the AP reported, “Baseball moved the first round of the draft to Omaha, Nebraska, ahead of the College World Series in June, but the CWS was canceled last week.” Considering that other rounds of the draft are conducted by conference call, the cancellation of the College World Series does not pass the smell test as a reason to call off the entire thing.
Given that the college baseball season is canceled, there are open questions about NCAA eligibility still to be resolved, and high-school baseball seasons around the country are in flux, there is a case to be made for delaying the draft, calling off those short-season leagues, and instead putting together a combine or showcase circuit to allow those players to compete and scouts to evaluate them. That’s not what’s being talked about here.
As the AP reported, “While bonus rules for the draft and international players are part of the collective bargaining agreement, management could attempt to cite the national emergency as reason to make unilateral changes. With a Republican administration in Washington, the union would have a difficult path with a legal challenge before the National Labor Relations Board.”
Dodgers pitcher Alex Wood is skeptical of the possibility, as he tweeted, “I’d be shocked if this actually happened. The teams absolutely love the draft. They get premium controllable talent at an absolute fraction of what it should cost them.”
But that’s also exactly why MLB can push for it to happen. Management can see an opportunity to reduce that fraction even further, reshaping the labor market into next year, and establishing precedents that will be problematic for years after the quarantine of the sports world becomes a memory. This is a fight that is absolutely worth having for the union, because it’s not just about now.