Manfred and Clark Speak: NBA-Like Free Agency, Eliminating the Draft, Expansion, More

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Manfred and Clark Speak: NBA-Like Free Agency, Eliminating the Draft, Expansion, More

Chicago Cubs

It’s not at all unusual for Commissioner Rob Manfred or head of the Players Association Tony Clark to address the media during the All-Star Break. Outside of, say, the Winter Meetings, it’s probably the most and loudest we’ll hear from them all year. What was slightly unusual, however, is just how much major stuff came pouring out over the last few days.

I suppose it was to be expected – baseball is going through significant changes both on and off the field right as they barrel towards a potential work stoppage in the next round of CBA negotiations – but it doesn’t make it any less overwhelming. But I’ve tried to make it all easier to digest by collecting the highlights, dumping them in one spot (here!), and adding a little context of my own.

If you’d like to hear Manfred and Clark’s full thoughts, you can check out articles at ESPN, The AP, The Enquirer, Spectrum News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MLB Trade Rumors, CBS Sports, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Yahoo Sports … among other places, I’m sure.

NOTE: We’ve separated out the discussion surrounding the designated hitter and three-batter minimum, as well as the changes to the baseball, because they required too much space. Here’s everything else.

  • Last month, MLB’s executive council told the Rays they could explore that bonkers two-city idea, splitting the Rays between Montreal and Tampa. The goal, according to Rob Manfred, was to find “a way to preserve baseball in Tampa” while otherwise addressing the issues with dwindling attendance and unsettled ballpark (location and financing) concerns. In my mind, this is a fun, exciting, and totally bad idea. The Rays are 29th in MLB in average attendance, and taking away more games *in Tampa* just doesn’t feel like it’ll have the desired effect of improved attendance. Instead, it feels like it’ll further reduce the Rays cultural footprint in the city and create even more apathy towards a team that, in this case, would no longer feel like the hometown club. 
  • And that’s not the only issue. As I’m sure you’ll remember, MLB has been eyeing expansion for a few years now, but Manfred has maintained his position that he won’t do anything on that front until the A’s and Rays have figured out their plans. Well, if this proposal were to go through, it might help settle the Rays plans in the near-term, but it also takes away arguably the most attractive expansion city, Montreal. Manfred doesn’t seem to mind, though: “We have an issue in Tampa. It needs to get resolved somehow. If it means we give up a potential expansion site to solidify where we are, so be it.” Later saying, “No way that we’re biting into expansion until I get Tampa and Oakland resolved one way or the other.”
  • Another problem with the two-city approach is, you know, the players, with whom the league would “have an obligation to bargain” regarding potential solutions to unique two-city problems. Tony Clark is understandably concerned: “It’s going to require a lot of time and a lot of dialogue to figure out if it’s even a possibility.” Clark wants the Rays to be in the best position to succeed – because that’s “in everyone’s best interest” – but I can sense the trepidation in a two-city approach.
  • Moving on, Manfred has seen what the NBA has done – and the attention they’ve gained – through their “very different” and much quicker free agent system and he’s understandably jealous. “We would be more than prepared to discuss with the players’ association that system or any other system.” He continued, “I want to negotiate the freest free-agency in any sport, which is what we have. No cap. No franchise tags. No maximum contracts.”
  • Manfred points out that, in many ways, MLB does have a freer free agency with larger contracts than any other sport and is “good with the deal” they made back in 2016, but concedes that he’s willing to discuss changes … with a catch: “The conversation has to be limited. You can’t cherry-pick certain aspects of another system and say that I don’t want the things that aren’t good for me. And our economic system has to preserve the competitiveness of those small-market clubs. That is always our overriding goal.”
  • Hopefully, Manfred and the rest of baseball recognizes that absolutely demolishing the players association in the next round of CBA battles should not be the goal. There needs to be a balance for the overall health of the sport and, last time around, the players association failed on their side of the negotiations (it’s their own fault, in a sense, but that doesn’t make it any less bad for baseball).
  • One thing I’m not quite on the same page as the players (at least, not yet) is the suggestion of eliminating the draft. I think I will eventually get there – as Clark says, the draft inherently limits players’ options and is generally anti-labor – but that’s such a monumental change that I’ll need a more comprehensive plan and reason than just “C’mon … we want to.”
  • With that said, I don’t think Manfred’s counter-point: “Every professional sport has a draft. It’s part of the normal economic system that preserves competitive balance in the sport” entirely captures the spirit of the argument. Yes, obviously the draft helps preserve competitive balance in a sense, but a poor structure in the draft also promotes tanking, which is inarguably bad for the sport.
  • And, more importantly, as CBS Sports points out, “Since hard slotting and bonus pools were implemented in 2012, the average No. 1 pick – ostensibly the player with the most leverage – has received a signing bonus barely exceeding the one given to Tim Beckham back in 2008.” That’s an issue.
  • Another issue is that none of the drafted players are actually part of the union until they are big leaguers (at least, on paper). So Clark is somewhat limited in what he can do. And, of course, there’s also the fact that the draft could sooner get larger – including international prospects – before it gets smaller. Hopefully, Clark is just using this as a negotiating strategy (to, say, remove caps and hard slots), rather than an actual end game.
  • The MLB Players Association’s official grievance against four teams including the Pirates is “still pending.” In case you forgot, the grievance is against the Pirates, Marlins, Rays, and A’s and about the improper non-use of revenue sharing funds on free agency. And, of course, Manfred’s response to the criticism – But they were competitive! – is just another example of missing the point. The idea is not *solely* to make sure those teams are bare-minimum competitive. It’s also about forcing them to spend money that’s being GIVEN to them by other clubs on free agents, so they can be better and the players can see more of the revenue. Spending as little as possible to be just good enough is going to hurt the players, and arguably hurts the overall product, too.
  • In any case, Yahoo Sports is reporting that CBA negotiations are actually set to begin soon – i.e. they’re not on yet – TWO YEARS in advance of the current CBA’s expiration date. Given how much ground needs to be covered, that feels wise.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami