While the swords remain sheathed at the moment between the MLBPA and the owners, there’s been enough saber-rattling about the length and shape of the 2021 season to know that there’s likely going to be another labor fight. Just like the one they had last summer in paring down to a 60-game season. And what’s been generally accepted is that the previous battle, and the upcoming one, are merely skirmishes or isolated clashes for what is shaping up to be the real engagement, and that is the CBA negotiations that will come up after the 2021 season.
While the owners will play this frigid offseason, highlighted by some of its big-market teams simply giving up, as all the result of the pandemic, anyone paying attention knows this fight has been ramping up for years. The analytical movement of front offices has become the scourge of players, as teams relentlessly seek the most efficient ways to build a winner, primarily meaning financially. Rules of service time, the shorter arc for players to develop into major leaguers, the hastening of the aging curve, and other factors have seen players simply not get paid when they were used to doing so, and teams always on to the next big thing, i.e. the next cost-controlled thing.
We know that the MLBPA will come for service time, and especially the manipulation of it where teams would hold obviously-ready players down for a couple of weeks in Triple-A just to get another year of control. If previous actions from PA chief Tony Clark are any indication, the union may just settle for that, and maybe a lowering of the age/time to qualify for free agency.
But if it wants real change, it needs to look beyond simply lowering the age and years it takes to get to free agency. And to do that, it’s going to have to accept what before has been the unspeakable phrase to the union: A salary cap. Because with a salary cap, the players can get a salary floor, which it so desperately needs.
Players will see their faces turn green at the very mention of a cap, but their biggest problem is the sheer amount of teams that aren’t spending anything, much less coming anywhere near the luxury tax. Whether players like it or not, they’ve been playing under a salary cap for a few years now, as teams have treated the luxury tax like a cap with the toxicity levels and range of a pile of heavy metal t-shirts discarded immediately after a Motorhead show in 1986. They’re already living under those conditions, whatever they label it.
All of the other major sports have a salary floor along with their cap. The NBA’s floor is about 90 percent of its ceiling. The NFL’s is around 85 percent. The NHL’s is at around 75 percent of its ceiling. Even at the NHL’s lowest number, if the current luxury tax threshold were an MLB salary cap of $210 million, setting a floor at $157 million per team, only half the teams met it last year (prorated out from the 60 games played and paid for). Forcing every team from just last season to go over $157 million would pump $722 million worth of salary back to the players, based on last year’s payrolls, or about $45 million per team that’s below that figure. That’s 15 percent of total salaries across MLB going back to the players simply by making teams spend over a pretty conservative mark. You can see the benefits of the MLBPA pushing for a salary floor closer to the percentage that the NBA and NFL have.
A salary floor isn’t a cure-all. As the NHL has found, even with that it has squeezed out the middle class of players in free agency. The stars make their cash, the young players get their entry-level deals and maybe a second contract, but the 28-year-old, second-line free agent can find himself shafted. The NBA has tried to cure this with exceptions on the cap (see Bird Rule), which the MLBPA could shoot for. We see now in MLB that this class of free agents is getting the short-end anyway, with some merely taking the qualifying offer from their team for one year.
A salary floor also doesn’t prevent teams from tanking or eschewing multiple seasons in search of draft picks and prospects. But teams having to take on bad or simply vacated contracts, as we often see in the NBA and NHL, frees up money for the teams that do want to spend and compete. No longer are they hamstrung by bad deals in the past, and teams they normally would have had to send a prospect or two to get them to take on bad contracts would be forced to take them on for less. It can certainly tighten up a tanking window.
Whether they like it or not, the MLBPA is heading for a very ugly fight, if it isn’t already in one. Certainly, a cap has not prevented NBA players from getting seriously paid. NFL contracts are a rough comparison because they’re not guaranteed. Top-end NHL players might think they could be making more, and they probably should be, but the NHL needs the exceptions their NBA roommates have in order to see the rewards across its spectrum.
The MLBPA might have to give the owners the 10-8 round they’ve wanted for decades to get the overall decision.