Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports has a couple of interesting pieces of information in his latest column. The first is that some of the remaining free agents — of which there are many — are considering starting their own spring training camp. The second is that the MLBPA is investigating whether or not the Marlins and Pirates, who have both traded franchise icons this offseason, are reinvesting their money into baseball operations rather than pocketing it.
The spring training idea is a smart one, though it’s sad that the situation has come to this. Free agents would be hurt competitively by getting a later start to the spring than their under-contract peers. It’s a good idea to collaborate with other free agents so that if and when they finally sign a contract, they are ahead of or on schedule as they would be otherwise. When and where that free agent camp would be held is not yet known.
It is certainly worth the effort for the MLBPA to ensure that the Marlins and Pirates are putting their money back into the team. Catching either team up to no good would, in the short term, potentially add two suitors to the free agent mix. Long term, it would give them significant leverage in negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement, which expires on December 1, 2021. The competitive balance tax, colloquially known as the luxury tax, and the draft are likely to be big topics of conversation. The players’ union will likely try to have the CBT removed entirely and may also try to remove incentives (read: draft picks) for teams to tank.
The MLBPA focused mainly on quality of life changes in the most recent CBA. For example, players received four extra off-days during the season without actually lengthening it. Additionally, start times of “getaway games” — the final game of a series before a team has to get on a plane — were changed to be more player-friendly. Union head Tony Clark has done a fair job at getting the players their QOL changes, but it has come at a monetary expense. That caused one unnamed league official to come out of negotiations for the current CBA saying, “It was like [the players] didn’t care about money anymore.” Clark may not be the leader the players need now that free agents are having so much trouble finding jobs, so a change could be made in the next few years.
This is a very complex issue that won’t have a simple solution. The free agent market is stagnant for many reasons. All front offices are versed in analytics now and are aware how risky big, long contracts are. Also due to analytics fluency, many front offices now think very similarly which reduces players’ leverage. More teams are explicitly tanking in order to build up for the future. Other teams are hesitant to build their payroll up high enough that they exceed the CBT. Many teams have begun signing their talented young players to multi-year contracts before they become eligible for free agency, leaving the market mostly full of players in their 30’s or otherwise lesser-skilled players. Whoever is in charge of the MLBPA when December 1, 2021 rolls around will have to navigate these and other issues, hopefully finding a way to avoid interrupting what is currently 23 years of labor peace.