Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Baseball's Uncertain Future, and How It Might Affect the Mets

There was a piece by Evan Drellich in The Athletic last week that caught my eye, but in all of the excitement surrounding Steve Cohen's final approval by MLB owners, I wasn't able to get around to writing about it. The current CBA (Collective Bargaining Agreement) between MLB and the Players Association is set to expire after the upcoming 2021 baseball season. It's been a long time since the last strike/lockout in 1994-1995, but those of us who lived through it still remember it vividly and dread the potential for a repeat of that event. The ugly negotiations that preceded this season were a red flag that a quarter of a century of avoiding those stoppages is very much in jeopardy this time around. And how cruel would that be to all baseball lovers, even more so to Mets fans like us who have waited so long for a regime change for our club?

Before I go on, let me assure you that this isn't going to be a purposefully worst-case piece trying to drum up clicks. I do think both parties have a large incentive to not allow things to continue on down the road they traveled earlier this year. Both team owners and players should be worried about how the continued negative effects of the pandemic on the economy will impact them, and how staging ugly public battles will only drive fan interest away from the game. I don't expect everyone to be holding hands and singing Kumbaya together, but I do think that both sides will try much harder to do more negotiating with each other and less in public.

Still, there are real issues separating the two sides, and the prolonged failure of this year's negotiations shows that bridging those differences won't be easy. MLB owners spent a lot of time going onto local sports radio stations complaining that the players wouldn't agree to a revenue-sharing proposal. They claim that they want to be "partners" with the players, but the owners never have been and never will be willing to allow complete transparency of their true profit and loss information. I rarely do this, but I want to share something I wrote at the time in my post linked above:

I'm going to propose a hypothetical to you. You get offered an exiting new job. You get around to the part of the interview where compensation comes up. You ask about salary, and the company representative tells you, "It depends. You will be paid 1% of the company's total revenues after expenses." Your eyebrow arches up, and you ask, "How will I know how much money this company makes? Will I be able to look at the books to verify what I am told?"

The Company rep smiles warmly and reassuringly at you, while simultaneously shaking his head. "No, sorry," he replies, "we don't share that information. Don't worry, though, you can trust us." You smile back, getting up out of your seat and facing the exit. "No thanks," you reply, "I don't think I want to work for you under those terms."

As you head out the door the Company rep cries out, "But if you'll only trust us we can be partners! We can advance this company and build revenues together! Your lack of faith in us is giving me the sads."

You keep walking, because you understand if they force you to take their word for how much money the company is making, you're not really a partner. You're just a patsy.

It seems likely that the owners are going to push for revenue sharing again. Maybe this has a chance of happening if they're willing to figure out a way to be really transparent with revenues, but that likely won't happen. There is virtually no chance that the players would agree to this without that transparency. In my little hypothetical quoted above, anyone who agreed to share revenues without complete transparency would be a patsy.

The players would be bringing their own baggage into all of this, too, because there is great dissatisfaction with the last agreement, with the thought that union head Tony Clark gave away too much at the previous CBA negotiations. Essentially they see the high luxury tax penalties serving as a more or less de facto salary cap, while the qualifying offer and draft pick compensation undoubtedly harmed the negotiating position of the top free agents. As we learned back in May and June, the baggage both sides carried into negotiations really made reaching an agreement incredibly difficult.

Things aren't likely to get much easier with the uncertainty that still hovers over exactly how next season might go down. Will there be fans in the stands at the start and, if so, how many? Does the season run the normal 162 games, or do they start a bit later, hoping for a widely available vaccine to open things up? 

In his piece in The Athletic, Drellich reports that there is some sentiment towards delaying the new CBA negotiations, possibly pushing them back another year to a time when potentially there would be more certainty about what the post-pandemic economy might look like for Major League Baseball. That would make a lot of sense, but that would have to be agreed to by both sides, and accommodations would have to be made for whether to keep a universal DH and some sort of expanded playoffs. This is certainly something that hangs over all of baseball, but it has significant personal interest to me as a Mets fan.

Steve Cohen is reportedly prepared to lose about $400 million over his first couple of years running the team. This number is assumed to include whatever payroll upgrades there are and also significant infrastructure upgrades to the team as a whole. The reports of this intention are one of the things that is making fans so optimistic about the future. Yet the difficulty in predicting what the revenues might even be next season is going to complicate Cohen and Alderson's ability to plan, especially when it comes to payroll commitments.

Now add to that uncertainty the question of rule changes for next year and beyond. I've never loved the DH, but I'm convinced that only a universal DH rule in baseball can level the playing field for NL and AL clubs. Since there's about a 0% chance that the AL would consider dropping the DH after almost five decades, I think it has to be universal. AL clubs had an advantage in putting a roster together over NL clubs when the DH was only in their league. An AL club can sign a top catcher like J.C. Realmuto confident that they can derive maximum value out of the player by DHing him in games where he doesn't catch. Think about how much more valuable Mike Piazza would have been to the Mets in his prime with that option available all season.

The same would go for signing any top player with a contract that ran into his mid-to late-30s. Teams could be comfortable offering an extra year or two to seal a deal when the DH slot is an option.

As teams like the Mets are trying to figure out what they're willing to spend, the question of extra playoff slots and the implications of that matter, and some clarity in whether it will happen would be invaluable to a team's short-term plans, including spending.

Negotiating the next CBA isn't going to be easy, but things should be a little clearer for both sides an additional year removed from this pandemic. Still, it's going to take more of a spirit of cooperation than they showed earlier this year just to get to a place where they can agree to kick the can down the road a bit.

So, while I do think MLB and the Players Association putting off the CBA negotiations for an additional year would make sense, I'd really want to see issues like the Universal DH and playoff format settled for both 2021 and 2022 if they decided to do that. You can't avoid having uncertainty about exactly how those years will play out for baseball, so you need to strive for whatever certainty you can achieve.

That's it for me today. Please stay safe, be well and take care. Check back soon, we'll be posting throughout the offseason. Have a good one.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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