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MLB players offer possible pitch clock, shift rules as CBA talks resume

Competitive balance tax thresholds remain the main obstacle to agreement, and there was no movement there on Sunday.

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The Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) made some new proposals to owners as the two sides met in New York on Sunday, in an effort to break the stalemate in negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA).

Among the new proposals that the players made are:

  • Allowing MLB to make three specific rule changes with 45 days notice instead of the current one year requirement. These changes include a pitch clock, larger bases, and restrictions on defensive shifts.
  • IF free agent compensation is eliminated for elite free agent players, MLBPA will agree to certain “non monetary”, (meaning draft related) CBT penalties
  • Reduction in the request for a pre-arbitration bonus pool from $85 million to $80 million

Unchanged in the players’ proposals were any changes in competitive balance tax (CBT) thresholds, where the players start the lowest tier at $238 million and the owners are at $220 million. This is the most hotly contested issue as the threshold has become a de facto salary cap in recent years, with some of the biggest spending teams have stopped short of crossing the threshold.

The players were reported to be willing to reopening talks on expanding playoffs to 14 teams after the parties had seemingly settled on 12 teams, increased from the current 10, but there has been no word of discussions on that topic.

However one feels about these on field changes, the takeaway here is that the players are looking for things that they can put on the table to entice MLB to make concessions in other areas, mainly the CBT thresholds, minimum salaries, and the pre- arbitration bonus pool.

Owners’ demands

MLB had requested in the last bargaining session before talks broke off last Tuesday that players allow them to unilaterally make changes to the playing rules 45 days after first proposing them, instead of the current one year requirement. They specifically mentioned the pitch clock, defensive shift restrictions, and larger bases, and they also requested to be able to implement a robo- ump, but the players did not agree to the latter request.

According to Ken Rosenthal at the Athletic, MLB would be willing to increase the lowest CBT thresholds if

  • the commissioner is given the authority to change the rules of the game withing 45 days after the end of the season, and
  • the players lower the amount requested from $80 million, and
  • players agree to increase penalties at the higher thresholds, beyond those contained in the last CBA

The proposed rule changes would be examined by a committee that would include player representation. Any rule changes would commence for the 2023 season.

Among the rule changes wanted after 2023 are:

  • An automatic strike zone, (robo ump)
  • Automatic runner on second base in extra innings
  • the step-off rule for pitchers

In essence, the owners are willing to make a realistic offer to increase the lowest CBT threshold only if the players convert the commissioner into a dictator, turn the higher CBT thresholds into a harder salary cap, and give up millions of dollars for the highest performing young players.

Where do they stand now?

The third rail issue for the players, and some owners, has been the CBT thresholds. On paper, the two sides are $18 million apart, but there is a very contentious history to this topic since the threshold has served as a de facto salary cap in recent years.

A salary cap was the issue that led to the players’ strike in 1994 that canceled the season. post season and World Series. It is the issue that led to a grievance being filed and upheld by the National Labor Relations board and a federal court injunction in 1995 preventing the owners from implementing their own terms which included a salary cap and beginning the season with replacement players.

The players have adamantly opposed a salary cap even as their negotiations have allowed it to creep back in dressed as the “competitive balance tax” and they have been willing to die on that hill in every round of bargaining. When owners proposed increasing the lowest threshold to just $220 million, which is less than a five percent increase, and then freezing it there for two more seasons, MLB knew with certainty that their offer would be rejected and that opening day would be canceled. To get an agreement, they will have to change their position.

The previous CBA included “non monetary” penalties for teams that exceed the third tier threshold, which is currently $250 million, or $40 million above the first threshold. Teams with payrolls above that level are penalized by moving their first round draft pick back ten slots. This penalty applied only to the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2021 and would only apply to the New York Mets in 2022. Those teams would also pay a 62.5 percent tax on the amount above $250 million.

Players and some owners have accepted that the CBT should serve as a deterrent to “runaway spending”, but many oppose it serving as a deterrent to spending at the lower thresholds. So this concession should address the former without hardening the de facto salary cap at the first threshold.

Pre Arbitration Bonus Pool:

The players coming down even further here, from an already much reduced offer of $85 million down to $80 million is a sign that they’re willing to move on this issue, and they’re making a small concession in return for their expectation that MLB will increase their number from the current $30 million, which works out to $1 million per team, coming from MLB’s central fund.

Bonuses would be given to anywhere from 30 to 100 players based on performance. The irony is that this $50 million gap can probably be closed quicker than the $18 million gap in the CBT threshold.

Draft Lottery:

The players want a lottery for the first six draft picks, while MLB has offered five. Players have some other proposed limitations on repeat entries to the lottery. If other issues are resolved, this should be resolved quickly. As we’ve pointed out many times, a draft lottery will not prevent teams from tanking as the point for owners is cost cutting rather than trying to land a first overall pick in particular.

Minimum Salary:

MLB has offered to raise the minimum salary from $570,500 to $700,000, with $10,000 increases each year, up to $740,000 by 2025. The players propose $725,000 in 2022, $745,000 in 2023, $765,000 in 2024 and $765,000 and increases based on the consumer price index in 2025 and 2026.

What about expanded playoffs?

Despite the reports that players were set to offer expanding playoffs up to 14 teams, there are no reports that such an offer was made on Sunday. Players are hoping to find things that they can offer to gain concessions in other areas. Owners may have surprised everyone by agreeing to a 12 team format, which would net them about $85 million instead of $100 million for the broadcast rights to the new best of three first round of playoffs.

On paper, increasing the number of playoff teams from 12 to 14 will give MLB an extra $15 million in revenue from ESPN, plus their cut of the gate receipts for two more playoff series. By itself, maybe not much if they want to increase the CBT thresholds.

But there’s more to it than that. Some of the small market team owners, who have been driving the CBT bus in these talks, along with help from Tigers’ owner Chris Ilitch and Angels’ owner Arte Moreno according to reports, want more teams in the post season so that they have a better chance of making the playoffs without spending too much more money.

Those teams would get a chance at a playoff race, if not an actual post season appearance, and the boost in season ticket sales that comes with the buzz leading into the next season.

Hopefully, if this is the incentive, they’re going to hate the idea of “ghost wins” in their first round playoff series, which was a compromise for a 14-team playoff format floated by the MLBPA. Those ghost wins aren’t televised and they won’t draw any fans or sell any beer, so they don’t make them any extra money, which is all this is about fundamentally.

Other issues

Commissioner Manfred previously stated that the owners had agreed to eliminate draft pick compensation paid by teams who sign elite free agents that reject qualifying offers. What he didn’t say is that owners were demanding increased CBT draft penalties in exchange. It’s not clear whether the players are agreeable to renewing the current third tier draft penalty or more stringent punishment for the biggest spenders.

About seven players per season have rejected qualifying offers, making them subject to compensation.

The players have withdrawn their request for a reduction in revenue sharing, but they have made proposals for other restrictions that remain unresolved.

Bob Nightengale of USA Today reports that the sides could meet again on Monday, and MLB may announce further game cancellations due to the owners’ ongoing lockout. Early reaction to the additional concessions in the union’s new proposal on Sunday were not positive from the owners’ side.