Thursday, December 7, 2023

Winners and losers of MLB CBA: Good news for young players, NL lineups; regular season importance takes hit

Almost 100 days after the owners locked out the players and brought the 2021-22 offseason to a jarring halt, the framework of a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) has been accepted by both players and team owners. Thus the lockout ends and thus the next five years of Major League Baseball will be governed by this new CBA

So as the 2022 season blessedly and belatedly looms, let’s explore who – and what – figures to benefit and suffer under the new CBA. Needless to say, the accord that governs almost every aspect of the player-team working relationship is sprawling in its implications, which means this will be a wide-ranging examination. 

Shall we commence? All relevant torpedoes damned, yes, we shall commence. 

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Winner: The 2022 season

Despite the calculated dawdling of owners – recall they took 43 days to make their first proposal after locking out the players – we will indeed get to enjoy a full 162-game season in 2022. Opening Day will be pushed back a week, and the schedule will be a bit cramped, but it will be a genuine regular season. In related matters, yes, commissioner Rob Manfred was posturing when he solemnly canceled the first two series of the season. 

Loser: The importance of the regular season

MLB‘s sprawling 162-game regular season is a beloved daily presence for those who closely follow the game. The “slow burn” nature of it means the MLB regular season should be one of supreme importance in the sporting world, and back in the days when the postseason consisted of just the World Series it was indeed that. Every time the playoff field grows, however, the importance of the regular season gets whittled down a bit more. Moving forward, the MLB playoff field will consist of 12 teams as opposed to 10, which had been the structure since 2012. Stated another way, 40 percent of teams will make the postseason starting in 2022. Yes, giving a bye to the top two teams in each league helps, but far better would be granting strong incentives to all division winners. The 10-team field already permitted occasional mediocrity, and that will be an even greater threat from now on. Baseball’s signature regular season now matters less than it ever has. 

Winner: National League lineups

For too long, we’ve been subjected to the hapless spectacle of watching National League pitchers attempt to hit major-league pitching. The COVID-abbreviated 2020 season gave us a taste of what a universal DH would be like in MLB, and the usual complaints from traditionalists seemed to die down pretty quickly. The general rule is that people don’t watch professional sports at the highest level so that they may glimpse incompetence, and as such the decision to take the bats out of the hands of NL moundsmen is a tardy one. The National League is now caught up with pretty much the vast remainder of the organized baseball world, and the game is better for it. So, for that matter, are NL lineups. 

Loser: Accountability for small-market teams

As noted above, the CBT has come to function as a cap on the top end of team payrolls. However, there’s no such mechanism on the bottom end, which means that teams like the Pirates, Rays, Marlins, and others can continue to register payrolls that don’t even match what they take in via revenue sharing. Sure, the millions upon millions they get via revenue sharing are supposed to go toward improving the team, but that’s proved to be a toothless mandate. MLB’s biggest problem isn’t the teams that spend – it’s the teams that don’t, in large measure because they’re guaranteed profitability (thanks to over-generous revenue sharing) regardless of the quality of the on-field product. Stronger accountability measures are strongly needed, but outside of some very small tweaks to the revenue sharing apparatus that didn’t happen. The only bright spot is that the union during CBA negotiations didn’t agree to drop its pending grievance against the Rays, A’s, Pirates, and Marlins for failing to spend their revenue-sharing income properly. Otherwise, owners who don’t care about winning baseball games will continue to afflict the sport. 

Winner: The CBT as a de facto salary cap

The Competitive Balance Tax, or “luxury tax” on team payrolls, was never intended to promote competitive balance, which isn’t a problem in MLB. Rather, it was designed to limit labor costs and by extension player salaries. It’s achieved that quite well, and even though MLB wound up moving in the players’ direction on the CBT thresholds (i.e., the point at which penalties kick in for “violator” teams) it’s still going to function as a soft cap. That’s in part because high-spending teams have already proved to be responsive to CBT incentives, but mostly it reflects the fact that these CBT thresholds don’t begin to reflect revenue growth in the sport. In other words, even after the negotiated raising of the thresholds, those thresholds are still far too low. The CBT remains what owners hoped it would be – a salary cap, albeit a malleable one at times. 

Loser: Steve Cohen and other big spenders

We’ve already mentioned (multiple times) the capped nature of the CBT, and we’ll repeat that the new thresholds don’t come close to increasing in accordance with rising league revenues. There’s also another new wrinkle to the CBT – a brand new top penalty tier that targets the owners most willing to invest in their rosters: 

This penalty tier targets those who exceed the threshold by at least $60 million. As Drellich notes, it’s a not especially veiled effort to keep Mets owner Steve Cohen in check. You can also consider it a shot across the bow at the likes of the Dodgers and perhaps Yankees, too. As ever, most owners consider using resources in an honest attempt to build the best team possible to be a betrayal of the guild. 

Winner: Free agents left on the board

With the mandatory spring training reporting date set for Sunday, there’s not much time for premium free agents like Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Freddie Freeman, Starling Marte, Trevor Story, and Clayton Kershaw (among others) to find new homes. That said, the pre-lockout pace of signings proved that deals – even deals well into the nine figures – can come together rapidly. After owners ratified the fledgling CBA on Thursday evening, the offseason resumed in earnest, and that of course is welcome news for those names still on the market. Sure, some notable free agents will likely still be in limbo even after camps open, but even the possibility of signing is a welcome development in light of the last, oh, three months and change.

Winner: Pre-arbitration players

Until an MLB player becomes eligible for salary arbitration, which rarely happens until he has three full years of major-league service time, teams are obligated to pay him no more than the league minimum salary. Given the increasing reliance on pre-arbitration talent – and given the very much related decline in average salary across recent years – the union wisely prioritized fighting for more equitable treatment of this demographic. Ideally, more would have been accomplished on this front, but even as things stand the lot of pre-arbitration players will be better moving forward. 

First consider that the minimum salary will increase from $570,500 in 2021 to $700,000 in 2022; $720,000 in 2023; $740,000 in 2024; $760,000 in 2025; and $780,000 in 2026, the final year of the new CBA. As well, the players were able to introduce a league-funded “bonus pool” to be distributed to pre-arbitration players. Said pool will be $50 million in scope. The good news for players is that once a structural innovation makes its way into a CBA, it tends to stay there. Thus, the working assumption is that the bonus pool will be a permanent presence in MLB. 

Ideally, the union could’ve bargained to push the onset of arbitration eligibility back to two years, where it was for the early years of the process, or pushed to expand the percentage of “super two” players (i.e., the small group that gets an extra year of arbitration eligibility), but they lacked the leverage for those ambitious goals. In lieu of that, though, these are welcome gains. 

Loser: Any notions of ‘labor peace’

Really, the contentious negotiations over the 2020 season put the lie to this quaint notion, and now the lockout that almost took a bite out of the 2022 season has reinforced the lesson. Yes, we went a long time between labor stoppages, but the era of strained player-owner relations is back. Given their cross purposes and dueling interests that’s eminently understandable, but nothing’s going to be easy when the current gaggle of team owners is tasked with getting something done of this nature. The good news is that the saber-rattling won’t be with us for a while, and five years of uninterrupted baseball – global pandemics notwithstanding – is ahead. 

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