There are two years remaining in Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement with its players, but a growing rift between the two sides suggests negotiations are going to be bumpy.
The latest conflict stemmed from a conference call between reporters and Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos. He told them, “Every day you get more information. And we’ve had time to connect with 27 of the clubs ... we had a chance to get a sense of what the other clubs are going to look to do in free agency, who might be available in trades.”
That set off alarm bells in the players union, which is wary of teams sharing information and suppressing the open market. Back when labor discord was the norm, owners colluded after each offseason from 1985 through 1987, and even outright refused to offer contracts to some of the biggest star free agents (including Kirk Gibson, and Hall of Famers Tim Raines, Paul Molitor, and Jack Morris). MLB eventually settled their collusion cases by paying $280 million to the players.
The collective bargaining agreement clearly states, “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs.”
Tony Clark, a former player and the current executive director of the players association, issued a statement in response to Anthopoulos’ comments.
“The statements made by Braves GM Alex Anthopoulos call into question the integrity of the entire free-agent system,” Clark said. “The clear description of Club coordination is egregious, and we have launched an immediate investigation looking into the matter.”
As always, context matters. The Anthopoulos quote was an answer to a question. Some Braves beat reporters took the answer to mean he was gauging the trade market. Anthopoulos said as much in response to the MLBPA statement.
“In advance of the general managers meetings, I called around to clubs to explore the possibility of potential offseason trades. At no time during any of these calls was there discussion of individual free agents or the Braves’ intentions with respect to the free agent market,” he said. “To the extent I indicated otherwise during my media availability on Monday, I misspoke and apologize for any confusion.”
The investigation into Anthopoulos’s comments probably won’t lead to any sort of sanctions (maybe a sternly written letter), but that’s not the point. Clark was still right to issue the statement he did. He has to draw a line in the sand somewhere.
The owners have gotten the upper hand over players in labor negotiations for most of this century, curbing costs whenever possible. The last few CBAs have limited amateur spending, both domestically with the draft and internationally with caps on signing bonus pools.
The next thing for owners to limit is spending on major league players, something they’ve essentially accomplished the last two offseasons. The average of the league’s top 125 salaries dropped from $17.9 million to $17.8 billion, despite big new contracts handed out to elite players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado last winter.
The average salary in MLB declined in each of the last two seasons, even thought the sport is bringing in record revenue, including a reported $10.3 billion last year. From 2014 to 2018, MLB revenue increased 14.4 percent but salaries went up just 7.2 percent. You can see why a divide between the two sides is growing.
Clark needed to say what he said because teams have become so used to having leverage that they’re no longer afraid of saying the quiet part out loud.
The Twins didn’t call up center fielder Byron Buxton in September 2018, which denied him enough service time to make him a free agent after 2023 instead of 2022. Minnesota general manager Thad Levine said at the time, “We wouldn’t be doing our jobs if we weren’t at least aware of service-time impacts on decisions we make.”
The Blue Jays — who lost 95 games in 2019 with an opening day payroll of $114.5 million, down 29 percent from the year before — made five deals at the trade deadline, and general manager Ross Atkins boasted that Toronto “turned 14 years of control into 42 years of control.”
Toronto didn’t call up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. this season until April 26, which was late enough to keep him from accruing a full season of service time in 2019 and delay his free agency by a year. The Braves did the same with Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2018, as did the Cubs with Kris Bryant in 2015. Amazingly, Bryant’s grievance with the team is still pending five seasons later.
Manipulation of service time not only pinches pennies, it also isn’t conducive to winning games. The very idea of not fielding your best players at any point is antithetical to competitiveness. Last February, amid a second consecutive cold free agent winter, Clark called out teams for not trying.
“This year a significant number of teams are engaged in a race to the bottom” he said. “This conduct is a fundamental breach of the trust between a team and its fans and threatens the very integrity of our game.”
Clark was right. Ten teams lost 90 games, and four 100-loss teams tied a dubious major league record.
This winter figures to be long, too. Outside of a few elite free agents, players will be waiting around a long time for deals.
The teams at the top of baseball’s financial food chain now treat the competitive balance tax threshold as a de facto salary cap, which doesn’t bode well for bidding wars. The Yankees and Dodgers have steered clear of the competitive balance tax threshold for two years, while the Red Sox want desperately to get under it, even if it means getting rid of one of J.D. Martinez or (gasp!) Mookie Betts.
Cubs owner Tom Ricketts groused about paying the competitive balance tax in interviews this offseason, saying, among other things, “It’s not how much you spend, it’s how much you win.”
Bill DeWitt, who purchased the Cardinals in 1995 for $150 million, did not sound all that eager to increase payroll this winter in an interview with Mark Saxon of The Athletic, saying, “The commentary that this is a wildly profitable business is misguided and wrong.”
The Cardinals were valued by Forbes this April at $2.1 billion.
With a dwindling number of teams actually competing, and even the contenders holding their noses at the idea of spending big, you can see why the players association is a little peeved right now.
Clark also needed to make his statement in part to educate the players.
The Rays’ opening day payroll of $60.6 million was the lowest in baseball, though they still managed to win 96 games and the AL wild card game. Gold Glove Award-winning outfielder Kevin Kiermaier celebrated said wild card win by telling reporters, “It’s always fun when you get to stick it to the man.”
Who did Kiermaier think “the man” actually is? Certainly not the wild card opponent A’s, whose $90 million payroll ranked just 26th in baseball. If anything, “the man” keeping the Rays’ payroll so absurdly low is owner Stuart Sternberg.
Players need to see the teams and owners for what they are, which is corporate thinkers who will do everything in their power to keep salaries low. That’s what corporations do, especially ones with antitrust protection.
Clark knows this, and he needs his players to know it. That’s what his statement was about.