Baseball labor negotiations-as they always seem to do- are leading the owners and the players association towards a multi-billion dollar game of Chicken. While many Blue Jays are already suffering from collective bargaining fatigue, there are three issues which will have a direct impact on how Toronto does business going forward.
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No baseball fan has the heart or the time to dive into the minutiae of any labor negotiation. When it comes to professional sports labor issues, it becomes even more difficult trying to follow along and pick sides. But in the baseball labor world of millionaires versus billionaires, the task is as close to an impossible task as there is for a baseball fan to nurture a rooting interest in.
Many baseball insiders and reporters wax poetic about the 26 years of “labor peace” in Major League Baseball. The reality is the sense of peace they talk about have more in common with Israeli/Palestinian coexistence than true cooperation. True, there has not been an extended labor stoppage in MLB since the catastrophic player strike that wiped out the 1994 season. But the Major League Baseball Players Association and its members have slowly simmered after compromises paved the way for consecutive Collective Bargaining Agreements. During that time the 30 ownership groups have steadily reduced payroll expenditures while realizing growing revenues from ownership interests in regional sports networks and profits from real estate development projects surrounding new ballparks.
I won’t bore you with legalistic details nor add fuel to the raging fires of resentment you share with baseball fans across the U.S. and Canada. But there are three aspects of the CBA negotiations that Blue Jays fans need to focus on while attempting to tune out the noise and sabre-rattling of the next few days….weeks…or God forbid months.
1) Service Time Reduction for Arbitrtion and Free Agency Eligibility
More than any other item, the establishment of reduced eligibility requirements for younger players is A Number One priority for the MLBPA. The one song all players and agents have been singing in harmony over the past twenty years has a heartfelt chorus: owners and front offices have to stop manipulating service times for young players ready to contribute at the major league level. No matter how catchy that tune may sound for fans and players, the bottom line is no negotiating tactic can outlaw executive decision making.
One area where the MLBPA can circle the wagons and draw a line in the sand is reduced service time for players to become eligible for arbitration and free agency. The fact that 51% of salary dollars are being earned by just 33 players is not lost on the rank and file union members and representatives. While a significant increase in the minimum salary will be important, a one-year decrease in team control through arbitration shall be paramount.
So how does this impact Toronto? For the 2022 season, not much. The Jose Berrios extension relieved the most immediate concerns, and if Ross Stripling is suddenly on the free agent market, so be it. Theoretically the level of spending on new free agents could see a soft cap. But the more aggressive approach by GM Ross Atkins this off season would not reinforce that assumption.
But what happens during the 2022-23 off-season? Star outfielder Teoscar Hernandez and reliable reliever Adam Cimber would suddenly become eligible for free agency. In the case of Hernandez, the price tag may cause serious sticker shock for even the most unflinching General Manager. Especially with a growing number of large contracts on the books and an imposing roster of arbitration-eligible roster staples becoming arbitration eligible.
Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Cavan Biggio, Danny Jansen, Tim Mayza and Trevor Richards are all eligible for arbitration this season. If arbitration control is reduced to two seasons, the 2023-24 off season would find the front office burning through calculators trying to find a way to accommodate the hefty awards Vladdy and Biggio will command. It is quite possible Guerrero, Jr. will set the record for first-year arbitration eligible players. So just imagine (shudder) what his second arbitration award and free agent contract will look like. Just as you attempt to wrap your mind around the Guerrero and Biggio retention cost, Bo Bichette and Jordan Romano clean up during their arbitration years. Free agency would become a reality for Bichette and Romano, joined by Santiago Espinal for the check writing session.
In order to secure this major concession from the owners, the last real bargaining chip the MLBPA can play is….
2) The Institution of an International Free Agent Draft
Since being expanded into existence in 1977, the Toronto Blue Jays have been amongst the most successful MLB franchises securing talent through international free agent signings. Tony Fernandez, Carlos Delgado, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Alejandro Kirk are just a few of the significant talents who have made significant contributions to winning Blue Jays teams. During expansion and lean years, Toronto scouting departments have found talent in Latin America and Asia that other organizations had not even considered. Should an International Draft be instated, the Blue Jays could be put at a real disadvantage obtaining international talents they target.
The days of drafting in the upper echelons of amateur drafts are gone for the forseeable future. While scouting successes should ensure the infusion of productive talent, the reality is many of the players the Blue Jays might be highest on will be long gone by the time their draft slot comes around. Atkins and International Scouting Director Andrew Timmish have proven shrewd spenders with international pool monies. This will not destroy the team’s successes in the international player markets, but it will compromise their competitive advantages in this area
3) Luxury Tax Threshold and a Spending “Floor”
In their initial offer to the players, owners representatives laid out a scenario in which the Competitive Balance Tax threshold would see the initial tier beginning at $180 million dollars. The tax rate penalty would increase to 25% from the current 20%. No doubt the MLBPA will not sign off on such a lowering of the “soft cap” they already hate. But we mention it because many 2022 payroll projections, after arbitration awards and free agent contracts, will flirt with that initial $180 million dollar threshold.
The more impactful (and realistic) issue surrounding this negotiating track could be a payroll “floor” of $100 million dollar every Major League franchise would need to reach. On the surface this is not a horrible idea, as the Pittsburghs and Baltimores of the league could no longer pocket revenue sharing revenues under the guise of “rebuilding” More troubling to a larger market and pennant contending team like the Blue Jays would be the loss of access to veteran role players and younger non-tenders. There were 12 teams with payrolls under $80 million dollars in 2021. Many of those teams have either already non-tendered or traded away players in advance of arbitration awards. Should a floor be instituted (to be offset by revenue sharing loans extended by MLB owners during the transition), the Jays just may find it even more challenging to secure the #5 starter, third basemen and bench and bullpen pieces they acknowledge they need to add in order to win the AL East or even a pennant in 2022.
About Expanded Playoffs…
Just as the MLBPA and the rank and file union members have been singing the praises of stopping service time manipulation, the owners have been banging the drum loudly for the need to institute an expanded playoff format going forward. The owners have proposed a 14 team playoff bracket, with the team with the best record earning a first round bye. The other two division winners would each select a Wild Card qualifier as an opponent in a three-game series, with the remaining Wild Card clubs facing each other for the right to play the team with best record in next round. In essence this idea revolves around Made-For-TV event similar to the NCAA Tornament Selection Show. We won’t waste your time picking apart the owner’ proposal, but we do wish to examine the counter proposal floated by the MLBPA that may prove to be too tasty to ignore.
The MLBPA negotiationg sub-committee, comprised of 8 current players (Marcus Semien, Max Scherzer, Francisco Lindor, Gerrit Cole, Andrew Miller, Jason Castro, Zach Britton and James Paxton), have proposed a 12- team playoff field comprised of division winners and 4 Wild Card teams. Before you request us to check our math, please note the player’s proposal includes realignment of both leagues into two divisions. While specific realignment assignments have not been released, it did not recommend changing the 15 team league setup. This would allow for one 8 team and one 7 team division in each league and rally fan support for expansion in the near future.
Using time zone as the basic parameter for divisional alignment, this is how the American League could flush out:
AMERICAN LEAGUE EAST- Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Guardians, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Tampa Bay/Montreal Rays
AMERICAN LEAGUE WEST- Houston Astros, Kansas City Royals, Los Angeles Angels, Minnesota Twins, Oakland/Las Vegas A’s, Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers
Very interesting indeed.
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Jersey born, Pittsburgh resident, baseball lifer. Staff Writer jaysfromthecouch.com. Host THE ON FEK CIRCLE on JFtC YouTube Channel. Regular guest on Jays From the couch Radio Podcast. Established WPPJ Rock-a-thon benefit, which has been broadcast annually since 1981 and has raised for than $500,000 for the Early Learning Institute of Pittsburgh. IBWAA member.