The current Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB’s players and its owners is due to expire on December 1. And, given the state of the relationship over the last several years, plus the extensive needs to address financial and competitive issues in the game, no one is particularly optimistic that a new deal will be done by then. Done by Spring Training? Most seem to think that’s more likely. But, until then, we track the discussions, which seem to be ongoing. And that’s at least a good sign!
The latest comes from Joel Sherman, who adds that the latest offer from the owners included DRAMATIC changes to the service time system, which is a thorn to the players:
https://t.co/BVopz0PdPy As part of its proposal to the Players Association last month, MLB offered to abolish many elements of service time.
— Joel Sherman (@Joelsherman1) September 1, 2021
In short, the proposed system would do two main things: (1) increase the salaries paid out to arbitration-eligible players (starting with a 50-ish% increase from where those dollars are currently projected to be, and then adjusting annually relative to league revenues), and (2) change free agency from a service-time-based approach to a pure age-based approach. The proposed age cutoff would be 29.5 years, after which you’d become a free agent (presumably in your first offseason after turning 29.5). So basically, you remove the incentive to hold players down artificially, and you shift more money to arbitration-level players.
The obvious rub there is that 29.5 is pretty old for some guys – the young superstars – to reach free agency. Wander Franco is right now breaking out as the best player on the Rays … and he wouldn’t be a free agent for a DECADE. Even for more typical players who reach free agency around 27-29, setting free agency at 29.5 could cost them their most valuable years. I suspect the union will beef with that particular age line.
Of course, the flip side is that players who break out later would be able to reach free agency before their physical peak is so far behind them that they’ll never make any real money. There are definitely players that 29.5 would help considerably. (Ope, I guess all of Patrick Wisdom, Frank Schwindel, and Rafael Ortega are going to be free agents next year! (I mostly kid, because I would think there would be a grandfathering period, but it’s something to keep an eye on, including with Cubs relievers!))
Then again, talk about a system that would incentivize teams to get players to the big leagues as early as possible!
I tend to think service time is still going to be the ticket when all is said and done (enormous changes are rare), but getting more players paid more money in their arbitration years is a good thing (tying it to revenue will piss off some players, though). And if this age-related offer gets the sides talking about maybe chopping off a year of service time or something like that, it’s a start. It’s also possible they could come to an agreement on a hybrid approach – i.e., you’re a free agent after six years of service time or after you turn 29.5, whichever comes first.
(Random fun fact: in a system where free agency came at age 29.5, Kris Bryant – often seen as the face of this issue over the last six or seven years – would reach free agency after this season. The same as when he’s actually reaching free agency. Of course, the big difference is that he would’ve been playing in MLB much sooner and would’ve theoretically earned more in arbitration during that time, assuming you still get to arbitration relatively quickly in this hypothetical new system.)
An important caution, just like I said about the last rumors that trickled out: without seeing the WHOLE picture of the offer(s) and the negotiations, you can’t really judge individually-reported elements too lightly or too harshly. Something might sound crazy, but when you see it in the context of the rest of the deal, it makes more sense. Case in point, a lotta folks freaked about the previously-reported drop in the first payroll cut-off level luxury tax (and commensurate increase in the tax), but Sherman reports that part of that offer was an elimination of the escalating penalties for successive years over the tax (which is EXACTLY what I said would have to be the case if the luxury tax level was dropping, because those escalating penalties are what really cause big market teams to all have “reset” years under the tax). So it made at least some sense as an offer. The same might be true with the age/free agency and arbitration stuff.
ALSO: never forget the way these negotiations go. Something will soon be reported coming from the players’ side, which will point out how egregiously awful the owners’ actual offer is, to which MLB will respond, and then there will be a counter-offer that is also called egregiously awful, and so on. That’s the cycle. It’s coming. Brace yourself for it now. I’m just happy it’s all starting in August/September, rather than merely starting in late November ….