How Do the Players Achieve Their Goals?

This is the third of a three-part series in which the lockout is examined from all angles: how both sides got to this point, what the players hope to accomplish, and just how exactly can they accomplish it. Part One can be found here, while Part Two can be found here.

Today, we try and determine just what the players need to do to achieve their desired bargaining goals, what the owners want, and where this could all end up.

Now that the particulars have been covered in painstaking detail, just how does the union go about gaining any of the wins they were hoping for?

First, they could simply relent on some of the aspects that the league views as nonstarters. Per reports, right before the deadline, the league requested the players drop several of their key demands before they were willing to counter and make an official proposal back to the union.

Basically, the players made their final offer the day before the lockout, but what subsequently transpired is apparently open for interpretation. The league claims they made a proposal the day of the lockout, while the players say the league proposed to make a proposal, referencing the ultimatum that they felt had no precedent in any prior negotiations they could remember.

Per the league’s words, had the players accepted this, “it would have provided a pretty clear path to make an agreement.” So, the league seems insistent on not even entertaining several of the key asks from the union—revenue sharing adjustments, arbitration eligibility levels, earlier free agency, or service time adjustments, for reference. Drop those, and the league will make a deal; however, this is basically what happened in 2016, and the players will need to be more resolute this time if they hope to make headway on these taboo topics.

Of course, the next step would be opening dialogue on what the league wants, compromising on certain issues to get more of what they are hoping for. The best deals, many say, are often reached when neither side is truly happy.

Unfortunately for the players, they seem to be facing an uphill battle. The league is in the pole position—happy with the wins they’ve experienced recently and with little desire or need to make any changes—while the union is fighting from behind, trying to gain ground back on what they feel they have lost. Also, the league seems happy to hold the current system over the players’ heads, claiming “the Players Association already [have] a contract they wouldn’t trade for any other in sports”—i.e. no salary cap or maximum contracts—basically suggesting why would the union want any changes if they have what they want already? Finally, the league doesn’t seem to have many pressing concerns, meaning there’s not anything major the players can concede on to get something major back.

The league doesn’t necessarily seem to be making proposals they want; rather, these are changes they feel address union concerns but still suite the needs of the league enough to ultimately happy with them. For example, they’d get rid of arbitration, but are still only offering their version to players with three plus years of service. Or they would offer free agency to players 29.5 years of age, but only with a significantly reduced Competitive Balance Tax line.

Chief among the league’s concerns this bargaining term is expanded playoffs. They got a bite at the apple in 2020, and now they want the possibility of exponential revenue increases in perpetuity. The two sides seem to disagree on potential ramifications—the league suggests more teams will try (read, spend), while the players think it will just create more incentive to be mediocre. However, the players are obviously open to it, as they countered the league’s proposition of a 14-team playoff with that of a 12-team one. There were a lot more details in the proposals, but we will just stick with the number of teams for now. So, it’s obvious the players see this as a road to gain some ground on their end, but the part to watch is just how much is the league willing to give up for a bigger postseason? Is it a draft lottery, draft pick compensation, and bonuses for pre-arbitration players? Is it only one, or maybe two, or maybe something that the players want that hasn’t come out yet? With it being their biggest chip, the players need to milk the expanded playoff for all it’s worth to the owners.

Next, the league desires significant on-field rule changes—pitch clock, restrictions on shifts, automatic ball-strike system, etc. et al.—all in the effort to either improve the game aesthetically or to speed it up. The interesting part about this is while many simply assumed these changes would be bargained for, it seems they aren’t even on the table at this time. Apparently, the league feels tensions are too high at the moment to add another potentially contentious issue, while there is also no precedent for including rule changes in collective bargaining. If these are things the league wants so badly though, why haven’t they made any proposals?

A while back, I tweeted something to the effect of “I wonder how much the players could get back from the league if they offered to accept a pitch clock?”, intimating that rule changes are something the league wants, while the players don’t, meaning they are good bargaining chips. Considering this, along with the argument of precedent, it’s possible the league is in part on the defensive with this maneuver—why would they want to give up leverage on something they hold all the cards on already?

It is currently within the commissioners’ rights to enact on-field rule changes with player approval, as long as the union have one year’s worth of notice. So, the league giving up that power, no less in exchange for something the players want, would simply be bad negotiating.

Chalk this one up to another bad beat for the players.

Sure, there are other items at play. The league would still like to have an International Draft, but this probably isn’t as pressing after they achieved hard spending limits in 2016. Of course, there’s always the salary cap, a topic on which I would like to editorialize for a moment, if you’d so kindly oblige.

A true salary cap system is obviously something the league wouldn’t turn down, if offered—they did suggest the makings of one in their first proposal—they just know the other side isn’t offering it, so they have not even proposed it.

That’s right, it’s not even on the table.

No matter what anyone is suggesting—I’ve read and heard a ton of it, and I’m not singling anyone out, because it’s everywhere—it’s not even being discussed, especially after the league rolled over immediately as soon as the players said no to their initial foray. I have seen or heard reference to its exclusion no fewer than three times amongst all the extensive reporting on the CBA expiration, yet it still is the talk of the town, as if it’s the main sticking point of the owners.

This simply isn’t an issue the owners are holding out over, and in my opinion, why would they? Sure, they would likely make more money under the system they proposed—otherwise, why would they have proposed it? —but they have it pretty good right now. They currently have the main advantages they would seek from a cap—artificial spending limits and cost certainty—without the pesky companion, a spending floor. So, if everyone can continue to make tons of money without even having to try and the system isn’t overhauled too much, why would they rock the boat? Maybe they’re the punching bags of their compatriots in other leagues—this is true, other owners make fun of them, likely for not yet being able to browbeat their workers into submission—but one could at least argue that maybe it’s MLB owners who should be the ones cracking the jokes.

Sure, it’s possible the union could achieve many of their goals if they budged on this, but it’s never even once been discussed, and one would have to assume it would be nothing more than their nuclear option. So, it would probably make sense to stop acting as if it’s even a possibility, because realistically, it just isn’t.

So, what’s left? It’s not as if the players can strike at this point—the league made it loud and clear that they strategically locked out the players so that was a card they didn’t have at their disposal. The players could strategically hold out until closer to the season, putting pressure on the owners to accept more of their proposals in exchange for ensuring no lost games. That obviously works both ways though, and even despite tons of lost revenue between 2020 and 2021, owners still seemingly have it easier when it comes to waiting the other side out, so this may not be a sound strategy for the players.

They could dissolve the union, which both the NBA and NFL Player Associations did back in 2011 when they both were locked out, but that seems currently unlikely for several reasons: federal labor law protections, the right to file charges of unfair-labor-practices (which actually ended the 1994-95 players strike), and the preservation of their filed and pending $500 million grievance against the league for failure to negotiate in good faith during the lead up to the restart of the 2020 season. Not only is the last one a potential windfall for the union, but it could also be used as a bargaining tool—agreeing to drop the grievance in exchange for something from the league.

Dissolving the union appears to be an extreme step, one that would only be taken if this goes on longer than expected.

What then is a reasonable expectation for this lockout?

The consensus seems to be that there should be no concern until at least early February, when the league would have to start considering moving spring training back, which would put games in jeopardy, meaning revenue would finally be on the line. The longer the players hold out, the more pay they stand to lose, but that wouldn’t be until they start missing game checks in April—even though, if owners are losing out on revenue, it’s not as if they would be more eager to give what’s left to the players.

Reading the tea leaves, a deal ultimately seems likely—I don’t see either side wanting to lose out on more baseball, after the financial and public relations mess that was the 2020 season—but if I had to guess, it’s not going to be a complete overhaul to the current system.

There will all but certainly be a Universal DH, something that seems to be such a foregone conclusion that it’s barely being reported on and I didn’t even feel the need to mention it. In the meantime, the proverbial can of on-field rule changes and adjustments will be kicked down the road.

A draft lottery of some kind will probably be implemented, in hopes of curtailing tanking. Will any gains there be lost with more playoff teams in the fold—another change that’s more than likely on the horizon—or will it increase competition, as the league promises? Any other advances the players can make in their fight for competitive integrity—such as ending draft pick compensation—will likely have to be evaluated, with further tweaks down the line as implications become clearer.

Younger players will likely end up making more money, whether it be through increases to the minimum, bonuses, or the like. Drastic changes to the system, such as overhauls to service time, arbitration, or free agency probably aren’t as likely.

Again, it’s the players who are seeking more changes to the status quo, and while many of these changes aren’t without merit, they will have to realize that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Right now, they seem to be busting out of the box thinking three, but they may just have to settle for a single, with hopes of stealing second later.

Ultimately, that’s probably what is likeliest to happen— a few concessions will be made, but nothing drastic on either side, and baseball will look relatively the same as we remember it.

It won’t totally be all for naught, but to many, it might just feel that way.