It’s been a rough 15 months or so for the Major League Baseball Players Association. After hastily and enthusiastically agreeing to a new collective bargaining with the league amidst an unprecedented lack of rancor and with very little push back against Commissioner Selig’s top priorities, the players and union officials were quickly confronted with the realization that, no, the days of baseballs’ owners constantly trying to get one over on the players were not over, and that the unions desire to take a business partner like approach with the league was not going to be reciprocated.
The rude awakening really began with the overturning of Ryan Braun’s PED related suspension last winter. Despite the fact that MLBPA has been as agreeable as any sports union out there to drug testing, pushing well into the realm of vigorously supporting efforts to catch players taking banned substances, the league reacted to long time and well respected arbitrator Shyam Das’ decision not with respectful acceptance of the decision and the union’s pro-testing position, but by blasting the decision, making laughable threats to appeal the ruling in federal court, and taking the downright remarkable step of firing the jointly employed arbitrator for having the nerve to rule against their position in a high profile case.
Then came the draft signing period, the first such event governed by the new signing pool rules the players enthusiastically agreed to impose upon their amateur counterparts. The hard slotting-but-not-really system the union carved out with the league not only reduced the amount of money drafted players collected in signing bonuses, but the top picks didn’t even manage to actually get the recommended bonuses for their picks, as teams sought to save every penny possible to distribute elsewhere, and the players themselves had no leverage to turn down any offer that was at least higher than the subsequent selection. But, again, the players were all for this system, so I guess they probably don’t consider this a failing.
But they would get their comeuppance this winter in free agency, as the potential loss of bonus pool money suppressed the market for free agents tied to draft pick compensation, and has left Kyle Lohse unemployed three weeks into Spring Training a year after finishing fourth in N.L. Cy Young balloting. The reason for this is two-fold, and directly relates to an incredible lack of foresight on the part of union leaders. First, the union took a draft pick compensation system that needed just minor tweaking (not treating relief pitchers as a distinct category so as not to have so many Type-A relievers on the market) and accepted MLB’s premise that this would represent a concession to the union (as if teams just loved the prospect of giving away a first round pick in order to sign a reliever for seven figures), and re-worked the entire system in a way disastrous for players. Most obviously, the number of protected first round selections was reduced from the top 15 non-compensatory picks to merely the top ten overall picks, including compensatory selections. Secondly, and less remarked upon, eliminating the arbitration process and a guaranteed raise for players in favor of the qualifying offer was hardly a great exchange for the players.
Here’s what the union apparently didn’t see coming. Under the old system, most Type-A free agents had nothing to worry about. Veterans weren’t going to get offered arbitration in most cases, because teams weren’t going to want to give aging role players a raise on the salary they were earning on their last contract. The players that did get those offers (other than relievers) basically had nothing to worry about on the free agent market, because the value of the picks at stake were basically worthless. Not did the bottom half of the league have their top picks protected, but anyone who did surrender a pick or two could just make up for it by spending more money in the later round to get higher end talent there. But by capping the amount teams can spend in the draft and attaching most of that money to the picks said teams would stand to lose for signing a Michael Bourn or a Kyle Lohse, the new CBA increases the value of those picks substantially, and the result has been a winter in which teams like the Mariners, Mets, and Red Sox are passing on quality players like Bourn and Nick Swisher because they simply don’t want to give up their top picks.
So you would think that, after watching things play out over the last year or so, union chief Michael Weiner would be coming around to the reality of things, right? Well, not if what he said to Mark Feinsand recently is any indication:
While neither us nor the commissioner’s office have any legal obligation to bargain over [the free agent compensation rules] over the term of the basic agreement, I don’t think it was the intention of either side that you would have a player and you’d have clubs that would be interested in securing that player and be happy paying that player his salary, but would be stopped from doing it by compensation. That really wasn’t the intention.
I can’t promise you that we’re going to be able to rectify it, but I know there will be discussions. It’s mostly good, but that part of it hasn’t worked out the way that we expected.
Emphasis mine, because, really? I’ve tried to take it to heart over the course of three years of blogging that baseball professionals usually aren’t as dumb as the internet masses think they are, but I might have to make an exception here. Weiner is, after all, dealing with the ownership collective that got hit with a massive judgment for colluding against the players not all that long ago, and the Commissioner who came into office by forcing a strike and cancelling the World Series in an attempt to impose a salary cap on the players. That failed, but Selig has been doing everything he can to work around the edges of spending restrictions ever since, and the guy charged with running the players union doesn’t think it’s the league’s intention to put rules in place that drive down the salaries of free agents? What the heck has he been doing while collecting checks from MLBPA over the past 25 years!?
But then again, we’re talking about the man whose players take home a lower share of their sport’s revenues than their NFL and NBA counterparts despite being the sport that operates without a salary cap. That’s a pretty jarring fact on the surface but, well, it isn’t hard to figure out how the players got to that point. Again, just look at the details of the current CBA. The union agreed to a deal that increases penalties for exceeding the luxury tax, provides added financial incentives in the form of revenue sharing rebates to teams on the condition of remaining below the tax threshold, and sees the tax threshold rise at a rate much lower than MLB’s revenues are increasing. And what, exactly, did the union get in return for this?
No, that wasn’t a rhetorical question. I’d actually like someone to tell me what the union thought they were getting in exchange for such an incredibly owner friendly cap structure.
Now, at the end of the day, I don’t really care how much money professional baseball players are making, and it’s perfectly okay if you don’t either. But I do care how strong the players’ union is, and you most certainly should care as well. That’s because strong players’ unions create the sort of labor peace that lets you enjoy the sport with minimal interruption from labor disputes, work stoppages, and what have you. All these years of relative labor peace since 1994? They happened because the players won a resounding victory over the owners back then, and finally left the league in a position where they felt as though the potential gains to be made from labor strife (and more importantly their ability to win those battles consistently) was outweighed by the costs. Weak unions, on the other hand, embolden the owners to push for more and more, eventually reaching a point where the players won’t concede any more, and then you end up with a strike or a lockout.
And that’s exactly where I think baseball is headed when this current CBA expires. Because make no mistake about it: Bud Selig is very happy about the way things have turned out under the agreement, whether Michael Weiner thinks so or not. He got his way on draft spending, a more restrictive luxury tax, and a tighter market for free agents as well, all in exchange for giving up nothing of any value to the players. MLB owners are going to continue to pocket a bigger chunk of the industry’s pie as more and more television money floods in, and when the players finally get wise and demand a better deal, they’ll find that the league doesn’t share the same “business partners” view of the union that Michael Weiner has brought to his job.