At the risk of sending shudders down your spine, I am going to be discussing comments this week from MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA Director Tony Clark. The last time the two showed up together in posts, it was all about the months-long lockout and the fighting it created. It was an unpleasant time.
The sides probably still aren’t on each other’s Christmas card lists, but the discourse about ongoing issues seems moderately more peaceful now that there’s a Collective Bargaining Agreement in place.
Nevertheless, the conclusion of those CBA negotiations left open unresolved matters on which the sides are currently still working. Among those issues, and where things stand …
Baseball’s Competition Committee is in the process of sorting out rules changes for the 2023 season, which, you by now know primarily means the pitch clock and shift limits. They are also working on base sizes, but there has been no talk that I’ve seen about pick-off limits. Automated balls and strikes – robo umps – are not expected for 2023. Maybe 2024.
How are the discussions going on the committee? Well, here’s how Clark put it to the BBWAA: “At this point in time, pitch clock and bases and shifts are the focal point for consideration for 2023. While the discussion has been ongoing and while players have offered their input on each of the issues, at least the initial proposals on the heels of that input being offered haven’t reflected that input.”
In other words, the committee – which is comprised of six ownership representatives, four player representatives, and one umpire representative – is listening to the players, but, in Clark’s view, not changing the structure of their plans on the basis of that feedback.
Candidly, the feedback I’ve seen from many players – the publicly-available feedback, at least – has rarely contemplated sufficiently the purpose of these rules changes (entertainment value), and instead has focused on natural human resistance to change. I totally get it, and I think the players’ positions have to be heard, especially when they relate to health. But if the grousing is about the pitch clock making things harder on some pitchers, or the shift limits bothering others, well, I don’t think that’s enough to sway me from believing these are necessary changes for the long-term health of the sport (among many others!).
The expectation is that we’ll get more clarity on what 2023 rules changes are coming later this season.
International Draft and Qualifying Offer System
The new CBA punted on the International Draft decision, indicating that the sides had until July 25 to come up with a plan. Either a new draft will be created to replace the current International Free Agent system, in which case the Qualifying Offer system goes away, or the current IFA system will stay in place, and the QO system will, too.
To date, we’ve seen some reports on a back-and-forth of negotiation, but the sides haven’t seemed to me to be all that close to a deal.
Clark obviously wants to see the Qualifying Offer system go away, since it depresses the value of certain top free agents, but overall he put it this way: “We want to remove or diminish [the Qualifying Offer impact], but that does not mean we’re going to mortgage the future of international players.”
That feels to me like a message intended as much for players who oppose the International Draft in all forms, rather than an actual bargaining position. In other words, I’m not sure how much of an update that actually is.
For me, I get player resistance to any kind of draft – it’s necessarily restrictive – but if the version implemented (1) does away with the shadiness and corruption that permeates the current market, and (2) guarantees players at least as much bonus money as they have seen in the current system, I’m not opposed to it.
Obviously this is also an important topic as far as the Cubs are concerned right now, since Willson Contreras – a would-definitely-be-qualified guy – is set to be a free agent. They’re going to trade him either, I’m quite sure, but the rules may impact the timeline and the return.
Stadium Issues and Expansion
This is relatively status quo, as both Manfred and Clark would like to see expansion on the horizon for MLB, but Manfred reiterated that the league cannot get into that until the stadium issues in Oakland and Tampa are resolved. (He didn’t say it, but I will: mostly, MLB just can’t take certain cities off the table in expansion without first knowing whether Oakland and Tampa are going to remain viable locations or not. You may prefer to have Team X expand to City Y, while Team A simply moves to City B.)
Clark expressed a hope that those issues are resolved and expansion arrives within the current five-year CBA.
Personally, I just get excited thinking about expansion to 32 teams because it will necessarily mean re-alignment. It’s fun and fascinating to think about the possible reconfigurations of the divisions. For example, if eight four-team divisions become the norm, who goes with the Cubs? The Cardinals, obviously, right? MLB wouldn’t split them up, right? But would MLB put the White Sox and Cubs in the same division? Is Cubs-Cardinals-Reds-Brewers too soft of a division?
Minor League Wages
I don’t know what to say at this point. I appreciate that minor league pay has improved over the last couple years, and that teams are now required to provide housing for players. But it remains a fact that minor league pay is a relative pittance – in the $5,000 to $14,000 annual salary range – compared to big league salaries, and is barely enough for the players to even get by.
So it was pretty galling for Manfred to say this, when asked whether owners decline to pay living wages to minor leaguers because they can’t afford it: “I kind of reject the premise of the question that minor league players are not paid a living wage … I think that we’ve made real strides in the last few years in terms of what minor league players are paid — even putting to one side the signing bonuses that many of them have already received. They receive housing, which obviously is another form of compensation. I just reject the premise of the question. I don’t know what else to say about that.”
Although the term “living wage” is subjective, I think most reasonable minds would agree that a salary that doesn’t reach the federal poverty line for most players is not a “living wage.” More work is still there to be done.
Note that MLB just settled a federal lawsuit about underpaying minor league players in the past, and is currently dealing with a political inquest into their antitrust exemption, and whether the league merits retaining it.