MLB Players Association Continues Digging Its Own Grave

According to The Wall Street Journal, the MLB Players Association has extended the contract of president Tony Clark through 2022, a year past the expiration date of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In January I wrote that labor peace hasn’t worked for the Players, as for the last 20 years the sport has seen the balance of power shift overwhelmingly in favor of the owners. As Craig Calcaterra notes, “it was Clark who was responsible for the negotiation of the current bad CBA and there are many around the game who speculated that his job could be in jeopardy as a result.” Apparently the Players Association is attempting its best impersonation of the Democratic Party: Maybe if they utilize bad ideas long enough, they will eventually work out.

It was only last offseason that owners essentially refused to spend money. Yeah, the Padres signed 1B Eric Hosmer to a monster deal; the Cubs signed Yu Darvish for 6 years and $126 million; the Red Sox signed J.D. Martinez to a 5-year deal; the Phillies signed Jake Arrieta to a three-year deal with a high average annual value. For the handful of players at the top, last offseason was just fine. On the whole, however, spending was scarce.

The current CBA encourages tanking, and to encourage tanking is tantamount to giving owners every reason not to spend money. Basically, Major League Baseball is a league with 10-12 haves, and 18-20 have-nots. I don’t know what’s going to happen this offseason, or which teams are going to sign Bryce Harper or Manny Machado to astronomical contracts in free agency, but still I have a pretty good idea of which teams are going to be competitive in 2019. Among them, in no particular order, are:

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. New York Yankees
  4. Boston Red Sox
  5. Los Angeles Dodgers
  6. Chicago Cubs
  7. Milwaukee Brewers
  8. Atlanta Braves
  9. Washington Nationals
  10. Philadelphia Phillies

Sure, you could probably talk me into adding a team like the Oakland A’s or Los Angeles Angels in the American League West. Maybe lightning will strike again and the Colorado Rockies or Arizona Diamondbacks will have a good year. Who knows, perhaps the Chicago White Sox and all their young talent will arrive a year early and surprise everyone.

I could give you all five of those teams, as well as the other 10 I listed, and that still only represents 50% of all big league clubs. So while those 10-15, in theory, could bolster their rosters for a 2019 playoff run, that leaves 15-20 (either 50% or 66%, depending how optimistic you are) with absolutely zero motivation to spend significant money in hopes of competing.

This is obviously a problem, particularly considering where baseball is as a sport in comparison to the NBA and NFL. In the NFL, teams go from bad one year to being in the playoffs the next. It’s realistic to make that sort of jump from season to season. In the NBA, teams can go from having the worst record in the league to making the postseason in a year or two (especially if they are in the Eastern Conference). In baseball, tanking is a way of life. Some organizations are willing to sacrifice a half-decade’s worth of games for the chance at building a winner from the ground up.

I’m a Texas Rangers fan, so of course I’m no stranger to the tanking strategy. After all, losing between 2007-’09 paved the way for General Manager (and now Team President) Jon Daniels to build Texas into one of the most successful franchises during the 2010’s decade. The Astros, meanwhile, made tanking more fashionable because they parlayed it into a real World Series title. They were in your face about embracing analytics, and unapologetic about shedding salary. It’s their organizational blueprint that other teams are looking to duplicate.

When only one or two teams are tanking, it’s no big deal. When half the league is doing it, that’s when it becomes a labor problem. This is where Tony Clark comes into play, because it’s his responsibility to ensure that players are receiving the benefits of all the cash that’s circulating in the game. When that money isn’t being used to procure talent, it means it’s going right back into the pockets of the already insanely rich owners. The challenge for Clark, and the Players Association, isn’t just a single issue. It’s actually many different issues, but first and foremost is getting all the tiers of players on the same page.

What I mean by that last sentence is this: if you are one of the highest paid players in baseball, you probably don’t take much issue with the current CBA. In 2018 there were 26 players who earned at least $22 million, which includes all the familiar faces (like Mike Trout and Clayton Kershaw) as well as a couple that make you scratch your head (like Ian Desmond and the now-out-of-the-league Hanley Ramirez). I doubt many of them will kick up a fuss about how imbalanced the system is treating labor.

Every active roster has 25 players, and there are 30 teams, which means only 26 out of 750 players (roughly 3.5 percent) are enjoying the fruits on the top shelf of the labor hierarchy. This isn’t to suggest that these are the only guys getting paid — because there’s a relatively long list of players earning anywhere from $10 million to $20 million annually — it’s only to say that, compared to the share of the profits that ownership is bringing in, there aren’t nearly enough players getting their cut of the spoils.

Every Collective Bargaining Agreement, whether we are talking about sharing billions of dollars or only a couple hundred thousand, involves two sides. There’s the labor, and there’s the ownership. The goal for labor is to get the most equitable deal, which in theory would be something close to a 50/50 split. The goal for ownership is, naturally, to retain as many of those dollars as they can.

Major League Baseball encourages tanking because the teams who finish with the worst records get the biggest share of the bonus slot money. This comes into play during the Rule 4 Amateur Draft (also known as the MLB Draft), as well as the J-2 signing period (where teams sign teenagers out of the Dominican Republic and Venezuela).

Owners have done a brilliant job bargaining over the last 20 years — an unprecedented era of labor peace — because they have effectively made it the law not to spend money. The entire point of drafts in the first place is to make sure talent isn’t being bid for on an open market; when a player can negotiate with only one team, they inherently lose leverage. The point of bonus slot money, on top of that, is to make sure the players who can negotiate with only one team are also hamstrung by the amount of money that team is able to spend before being penalized (in form of a hefty tax). So if Team X can only spend $10 million on all their draft picks, that means Player Y — who might be worth $10 million by himself on the open market — can only get a fraction of that allotted money.

The same goes for the international bonus money. Teams are only given so much that they are allowed to spend before being taxed, and as a consequence the amateur talent isn’t able to earn what they would on a truly free market.

There’s a no man’s land in MLB, and it’s somewhere in the range of having the 11th-worst record to the 20th-worst record. The ten teams with worse records all earn more in bonus slot money, and have their draft picks protected, while the ten teams with better records are all fighting to win a World Series. For teams in the 11-20 range, they are stranded with less money to spend on amateur talent, and are vulnerable to losing their top draft pick if they sign a marquee free agent who rejected a qualifying offer from their old club.

With the CBA as it is, it makes no sense to strive for an 85-win season, because it means not only that said team won’t make the playoffs, but also that they will lose out on the benefits of tanking. That’s the position baseball is in: if you can’t find a roadmap to 90 wins, you are much better off losing 100 games.

No need to wonder why attendance dropped by 70 million in 2018. No need to wonder why ratings dipped during the LCS and World Series rounds in 2018. The sport is dying, for a number of reasons, but rising up the list is the fact that so many fan bases are getting killed by the reality that tanking is the model of the future. Where there is tanking there is a lot of bad, losing baseball, and where there is a lot of bad, losing baseball, fans are reasonably going to tune out and stop going to games.

Tony Clark does not have an easy job here. He needs to get players earning $25 million a year on the same page as players making $10 million, and $2 million, and the league minimum, and then find a path to getting ownership to spend more money on talent.

It’s my opinion that Tony Clark isn’t the man for that job, if only because the current CBA is so disastrously one-sided. Under Clark’s leadership the best-case scenario for the Players Association in 2021 figures to be incremental gain, when in reality what is needed is sweeping change, which at the very least requires a President who is willing to have the Players Union go on strike.

This is why I think the MLBPA needs to move in the direction of having union lawyers — like in the days of Marvin Miller, or Donald Fehr — run the association. Where Tony Clark may compromise on some single issue, and in return give the owners a pitch clock, union lawyers may be more inclined to scrap the current CBA altogether and start from scratch. That would certainly be a difficult process, one that almost guarantees a lockout, but when the alternative is the owners fleecing the players, I don’t think there’s a better option.

We’ll see where this goes, but by extending Tony Clark through the date of the next CBA negotiations, there is little reason to expect things to get any better for the players. I would love to see a strike, but I’m not confident Clark has the stones to go there.