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MLB, MLBPA announce major changes, early CBA negotiations

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Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association have announced multiple changes to the All-Star Game, the trade deadline, pitching usage and roster construction. More importantly, they have announced that the sides will soon begin negotiations regarding more significant changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement — including substantive changes to the game’s financial arrangements — earlier than expected, with the possibility of an extension of the current CBA as part of that.

The major changes are as follows:

  • As of this season there will be a single trade deadline on July 31, with the August 31 waiver trade deadline eliminated;
  • As first reported last week, the All-Star Game “Election Day” format will officially come online;
  • “Subject to discussions with broadcast partners,” inning breaks will be reduced from 2:05 to 2:00 in local games, and from 2:25 to 2:00 in national games;
  • The maximum number of mound visits per team will be reduced from six to five;
  • There will now be a $1 million bonus for the Home Run Derby winner, aimed at getting the biggest names to participate;
  • Beginning in 2020, a three-batter minimum for pitchers — though that is waived if the pitcher ends the inning — and an expansion of the active roster from 25 to 26 players will go into effect; and
  • Also beginning in 2020, regular-season rosters will expand from 25 to 26 players while September rosters will contract to a maximum of 28. There may likewise be limits placed on the number of pitchers on each roster;
  • Subject to input from a joint committee aimed at looking at new rules, beginning in 2020, the minimum placement period for pitchers on the Injured List will increase from 10 days to 15 days, and the minimum assignment period of pitchers who are optioned to the minors will increase from 10 days to 15 days.

Bill wrote about the details of trade deadline changes overnight. It’s unclear what actual effect having a single, July trade deadline without the usual August waiver business going down will have. One hope on the part of the players may be that teams will work harder to have a set club earlier — with an increased commitment to better players — earlier on given that there will be a decreased ability to improve the roster in August. My sense is that this will not, in practice, lead to noticeable changes given how few significant waiver deals there currently are, but there have been many CBA changes over the years that have led to unexpected consequences.

We likewise talked about the All-Star “Election Day” thing last week. My sense of this is that it’s a means of Major League Baseball increasing traffic to its lucratively-sponsored All-Star voting sites. Given how competitively insignificant the All-Star Game itself has become, any such tweaking is of no real baseball consequence.

The shorter inning breaks thing is a bit of a game-changer as far as pace and game length goes. It’s one of the few things the league can do to reduce downtime that doesn’t negatively impact the game.

The $1 million Home Run Derby bonus is clearly aimed at decreasing the number of big name players begging out of the Derby for various reasons. Among those reasons are the Derby’s physical toll and the perception — and it may just be a perception — that participation in the Derby messes with players’ swings and leads to decreased post-All-Star Break performance. A $1 million bonus may not attract the game’s more highly-paid players, but given how so many marquee players in today’s game are young and relatively underpaid given their performance and star power, it may serve as an actual enticement. Aaron Judge, for example, will make only $684,300 in 2019. In his case winning the Home Run Derby would be a financial boon. Will that inspire him to participate when he may be inclined not to? We’ll see.

The three-batter minimum for relief pitchers had been discussed earlier this offseason as a means of reducing constant pitching changes in the mid and late innings, thereby speeding up the game. The deal on this involves the union not agreeing to it explicitly but, rather, agreeing not to oppose it if Major League Baseball wishes to implement it in 2020, which they could do unilaterally since they first proposed the change this year. The union’s reluctance to give the rule its full support, one suspects, is a function of some of its members — lefty specialists, most notably — being likely to suffer in the job market as a result. Agreeing not to oppose it was the price of getting Major League Baseball to not implement a pitching clock this season, as it had the right to do if it wanted. Players hate the idea of the pitching clock.

Expanded rosters — from 25 to 26 — will clearly add big league jobs, which is an interest of the players. The fear is that teams would simply use it to add yet another relief pitcher, which could exacerbate the problem of constant pitching changes, but the sides will continue to negotiate on this point, with the hope of a rule being implemented that would limit the number of pitchers on each roster, possibly 13 during the regular season, 14 during the postseason. Here’s hoping that happens because an extra position player would be preferable in my mind.

Despite those considerable changes, the most significant part of this agreement is that the sides will begin negotiations regarding more substantive elements of the Collective Bargaining Agreement far earlier than they otherwise might have in the runup to the current deal’s 2021 expiration. Such negotiations could result in, basically, the tearing up of the old CBA and implementation of a new one with an extension of its term. Major League Baseball floated this idea in recent weeks and, as I said at the time, it was unclear whether its doing so was more about optics than substance. That the union is willing to agree to these talks strongly suggests that its leadership believes that the league will, in fact, engage on pocketbook matters in a meaningful way.

And make no mistake there are considerable items that need to be addressed.

As we’ve chronicled at length over the past two years, the current financial landscape in baseball has become a pretty bad one for the players. Despite soaring league revenues, the players’ share of those revenues has, at best, remained static but appears to have been reduced significantly (there is a lot of spin about this point by both sides, naturally). Whatever one thinks of that, it’s absolutely clear that team spending in free agency is way down. Players who, a few short years ago, would receive multiyear deals are now being reduced to minor league deals and players who used to receive short or minor league deals are now, essentially, being pushed out of the game. Likewise, teams have placed a greater and greater emphasis on younger players who cost little and have little or no leverage, resulting in a fundamental disconnect between that which makes a player valuable to a team and the vanishingly small amounts those valuable players are being paid. Meanwhile, an increasing number of teams appear to be making no real effort at competing, with tanking, service time manipulation of young players and years-long rebuilds being the order of the day.

While there are any number of arguments that can be made about the nature and significance of any of those points, it is indisputable that the league and the union are at pretty sharp odds over them. It is likewise indisputable that, due to the contentiousness of many of these issues, if there is to be a change to the financial arrangements between the league and the union, it will take a lot of time and a lot of work to get it done. As such, beginning negotiations about it all earlier, as opposed to waiting two more years when the expiration of the CBA is far closer, is probably a good idea.

The All-Star Game and roster changes are going to get most of the press today, but make no mistake, the possibility of earlier substantive negotiations on pocketbook issues in the bigger news.

This Day in Transaction History: Cardinals send two players to Phillies in lieu of Curt Flood

Curt Flood
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As a recurring column idea, Bill will expound upon one interesting transaction that occurred on a particular day in baseball history. It won’t always be the most exciting or most impactful transaction, but always something interesting. Feel free to share which transactions stand out to you in the comments.

. . .

The Cardinals and Phillies agreed to terms on a trade involving outfielder Curt Flood on October 7, 1969. The Cardinals sent Flood, Tim McCarver, Joe Hoerner, and Byron Browne to Philadelphia in exchange for Dick Allen, Cookie Rojas, and Jerry Johnson. Flood famously refused to report to the Phillies, citing the club’s poor record, stadium disrepair, and racist fans. Flood challenged baseball’s reserve clause, sitting out the 1970 season. On this day in 1970, the Cardinals sent Willie Montañez and Jim Browning to the Phillies in lieu of Flood.

The trade became one of baseball’s most famous and not because of the quality of players involved. Allen, Rojas, Montañez, McCarver, and Hoerner all had lengthy, productive major league careers. Allen, in fact, would go on to win an MVP Award. Browning was really the only player of the bunch that didn’t pan out, as he never exceeded Double-A before his career in baseball was finished in 1975 at the age of 23.

Baseball’s reserve clause tied players to their teams even when their contracts expired. That is why many well-known players in the 1960’s and prior spent their entire careers with one team. Their options were: accept the below-market salaries offered by their teams or sit out the season in protest.

The Major League Baseball Players Association wasn’t created until 1966, but the reserve clause was challenged prior to Flood. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1922, in Federal Baseball Club v. National League, that the Sherman Antitrust Act did not apply to Major League Baseball. The Sherman Antitrust Act prohibits in interstate commerce anticompetitive agreements and attempts to create monopolies. The Supreme Court maintained that the business of baseball did not qualify as interstate commerce as it pertains to the Sherman Antitrust Act. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “The business is giving exhibitions of baseball, which are purely state affairs.”

New York Giants outfielder Danny Gardella sued then-commissioner Happy Chandler. Gardella was banned five years because he played in the Mexican League. He claimed that was an unfair use of monopolistic power and said that the 1922 Supreme Court ruling no longer applied given the exponential growth of the sport. Gardella ended up settling out of court.

The reserve clause was more seriously challenged in 1953 when Yankees minor league pitcher George Earl Toolson filed a lawsuit against the Yankees. Toolson spent the 1946-48 seasons with the Triple-A affiliate of the Red Sox in Louisville. He joined the Yankees in ’49, reporting to the Newark Bears. The Bears, however, dissolved, so Toolson was sent to the Yankees’ Single-A affiliate the next year. Toolson refused to report, saying that the reserve clause was a restraint of trade. Because the highly competitive Yankees had complete control over his career, he could not willingly play for another team that might afford him a better chance to realize his dream of pitching in the majors. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reaffirmed the reserve clause.

All of that laid the groundwork for Flood and MLBPA executive director Marvin Miller to challenge the reserve clause when the outfielder refused to report to the Phillies. Flood said in a letter to commissioner Bowie Kuhn, “After 12 years in the Major Leagues, I do not feel I am a piece of property to be bought and sold irrespective of my wishes. I believe that any system which produces that result violates my basic rights as a citizen.”

Aside from a very brief stint with the Washington Senators in 1971, this lawsuit ended Flood’s career in baseball. He was a terrific player, making the NL All-star squad three times, winning seven Gold Gloves, and winning two championships with the Cardinals in 1964 and ’67. From 1961-69, he accrued 39.2 Wins Above Replacement, per Baseball Reference. Only 12 players had more WAR in that span of time.

Sadly, Flood too was unsuccessful in challenging the reserve clause. Judge Irving Ben Cooper of the Southern District of New York denied Flood’s motion for a preliminary injunction, writing, “The game is on higher ground; it behooves every one to keep it there.” He also wrote that “the preponderance of credible proof does not favor elimination of the reserve clause.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit also dismissed Flood’s case, citing Federal Baseball Club v. National League and  Toolson v. New York Yankees, Inc. as precedents. The Supreme Court upheld the rulings of the lower courts.

However, Flood and the MLBPA had made the most progress against the case to date. Miller finally nullified the reserve clause five years later when pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally argued that the reserve clause didn’t give team owners the right to renew player contracts year after year in perpetuity. The MLBPA filed a grievance on behalf of the two players and the case went before an arbitration panel. Peter Seitz, an arbitrator agreed upon by the two sides, ruled in favor of Messersmith and McNally. Major League Baseball appealed in the district court of Western Missouri, but Judge John Watkins Oliver upheld Seitz’s decision. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals also upheld Seitz. In 1976, the era of free agency began, allowing players with six years of service time to become free agents.

Despite Flood making arguably the greatest impact on the game of baseball, he is not in the Hall of Fame. It is not surprising, though the Hall of Fame is owned and operated by private interests, as the Hall has often taken an ownership-sided slant. It was not until very recently that Miller was elected to the Hall of Fame, in fact. In late February, 102 members of Congress sent a letter to the Hall of Fame urging Flood’s election. Thankfully, we don’t need the Hall of Fame to decide for us whether or not Flood made an impact. He most certainly did and every player who has signed a contract as a free agent in the time since has him to thank. Just ask Gerrit Cole.