See, I warned you. Not long after we discussed how some of the potential new changes in the next MLB collective bargaining agreement (CBA) could affect the Detroit Tigers — in which I said negotiations “have been awfully quiet so far” — the MLB owners dropped a bomb to the media. With the current CBA set to expire on December 1, the owners have threatened a lockout if their demands are not met. This would put MLB’s 21-year streak of peaceful labor negotiations in danger.
Okay, so “bomb” is too strong of a word. Sure, as Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal reported on Thursday, the owners will consider voting to lock out the players if a new CBA is not agreed upon by December 1. However, this means very little. Player movement will be restricted during this period, but odds are low that a lockout will extend far enough to affect the start of the 2017 MLB season.
For one, there is too much money at stake on both sides. MLB revenues have soared as teams have re-upped on local TV deals. Even smaller market teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks have scored big, signing contracts that push into the billions. Player contracts have also increased, but they are still receiving the short end of the stick. The MLB Players Association (MLBPA) is pushing for a larger share of this revenue, but there is so much money at stake on both sides that someone will eventually cave well before it comes time to play actual games.
The people at the negotiating table are also important. Tony Clark is in charge of his first CBA as head of the players union, and has laid out a reasonable set of demands. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has led negotiations from the owners’ side before, but this is his first CBA tango as commissioner. Any missed games would be a major black mark on his record, something he undoubtedly wants to avoid.
Major League Baseball’s image is also at stake. Seen by many as an old, stodgy game, baseball has more to lose in a lockout than any other major professional sport. Fans were slow to come back after a strike wiped out the 1994 World Series and part of the 1995 season, and could be even slower to return if any games are missed in 2017. Major League Baseball is currently enjoying the longest current streak of labor peace among the four major U.S. professional leagues, and both sides would like to keep it that way.
According to Rosenthal’s report, the biggest sticking point for both sides is an international draft. MLB owners have cited various reasons why they want to eschew the current system for acquiring international free agents, but it ultimately comes down to cost control. An international draft limits how much amateur free agents will earn in signing bonuses, and all but eliminates the players’ bargaining power. Under the current system, players are free to negotiate with all 30 teams, which results in signing bonuses that have regularly pushed into seven figures. An international draft would force top talents to negotiate with all but one team, allowing owners to low-ball players who don’t have the same options (like going to college) that domestic players do.
The MLBPA has not relented on the international draft yet. While a change in draft pick compensation for MLB free agents has been levied, one anonymous player rep said, “We aren’t giving them something that affects 30 percent of big leaguers and probably 50 percent of minor leaguers in exchange for something that affects less than 20 players every year, especially guys who are staring $17 million in the face.”
Unfortunately, the MLBPA may eventually use the international draft as a big bargaining chip to force the owners’ hand in other areas. The MLBPA only protects players that are currently on 40-man rosters — hence the dirt-cheap contracts most minor league players receive — and could ultimately implement an international draft in order to receive other concessions, such as limited draft pick compensation and a higher major league minimum salary.
No matter what happens, the international draft should not stop the two sides from reaching an agreement this offseason. This may not happen by December 1 — and a lockout may then be enforced — but with so much more to lose than to gain, expect the two sides to come to terms in the near future.