With two days of space to step back and consider (and, for me, a day away from heavy pain meds), I can say conclusively that Friday’s labor unrest really was significant and shocking. Despite teams operating on the basis of a Collective Bargaining Agreement struck just last winter, we have players and their agents threatening to boycott Spring Training because an unusually large volume of free agents are yet unsigned. We’ve never seen anything like this, and given the tensions across the game right now, baseball must be taking the threat seriously.
But here’s the problem with that: is it actually a collective player threat? Like, has this been discussed among the players and their agents and the union, and this was the approach that was agreed to? Was it just supposed to scare teams into quickly signing players for market contracts, and if so, would that be enough to assuage the union? Or as we asked on Friday, are they actually looking to re-open a terrible CBA far sooner than its expiration? (UPDATE: The union released a statement at least denying that they’re calling for a boycott.)
The fact that we don’t know the answers to these questions is bizarre, given the gravity of the situation and the fact that it is necessarily a public relations battle. It makes you wonder if the players even know the answers.
To that end, Buster Olney today writes a must-read piece asking these and several additional questions of the union. According to the players and agents Olney has spoken to, they are *not* all on the same page about carrying through with a Spring Training boycott. And if the players are not on the same page – and not receiving excellent leadership from the union – they aren’t going to get diddly squat done, especially just one year after the new CBA kicked in.
Heck, the fact that the opening shots came from a trio of agents, rather than the union’s leadership (which went on to maybe-sorta adopt the agent statements? It was extremely unclear), is itself an indictment of the players’ unity on these issues, despite the content of those statements.
I want the right outcome for the players, because I think a happy, well-compensated player pool ultimately makes for the best baseball long-term. To that end, I think they’re going to need to figure out – immediately – how they want to proceed from a union leadership perspective. I don’t just mean whether or not to boot Tony Clark as the chief (the writing there probably should have been on the wall after the CBA disaster), I mean also how much direction the players collectively want the union to be steering this ship. It was absolutely clear on Friday that the union is not.
As for the owners, I say again: I understand how and why the CBA ended up being so owner-friendly. You go into negotiations like that aiming to get the best deal you possibly can, and you do so on the presumption that the other side will be effectively led and will push back enough to create an acceptable deal across the board. It’s clear that didn’t happen, and moreover, it’s clear that the deal is so firmly in favor of the owners that it is already threatening to disrupt the happy, healthy flow of baseball. Whether done as a measure of goodwill, or done simply as a measure of long-term self-preservation, I think it would be a very good idea for ownership to consider opening the CBA back up for further negotiation this year. Maybe the players won’t be able to get massive concessions right now (like a shortening of the service time requirements for free agency, or an expansion of arbitration), but maybe they could at least talk about rules changes to push back against tanking, and/or to increase the pool of big league players (i.e., a 26th roster spot).
I have absolutely no idea how or if it is possible to have these things resolved (in conjunction with the pace-of-play stuff) before the start of this season. But if the players could at least get unified behind (new?) union leadership on a clear negotiating directive, and if free agency can finish out with some rough semblance of normalcy, maybe then there will be plenty of time this season to negotiate more extensively, and maybe even have change in place before next offseason.