Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Worst Kind of Deja Vu

After living through all the awfulness of the MLB/Players Association attempts to play baseball this past year, it's not particularly comforting to see how negotiations are playing out in advance of the 2021 season. Everyone understands that it's to the benefit of both sides to have a DH in the National League this season — MLB wants to protect pitchers from injuries while batting and running the bases, the union wants those 15 DH positions — yet negotiations are going nowhere. The sticking point is that MLB wants to trade something both sides want, the universal DH, for expanded playoffs, which mainly benefit the owners.

Now there is some wrangling on when spring training should start. COVID-19 is really spiking in Arizona, mostly thanks to political posturing over what should have been a public health issue. It's no secret that MLB owners want the season to begin later, because they understand that the game will continue to be played in empty ballparks early in the year, with games later on more likely to include fans as vaccination numbers go up. MLB is claiming safety is the motivating force behind starting the season a month late — and it certainly would make some sense to delay — but literally everyone knows that they'd like to delay the season for their own reasons, too. There's even reporting that MLB encouraged Cactus League officials to write a letter so they could use it as leverage to pressure the Players Association to concede to the delayed season.

So we're back to the posturing and non-negotiating that we saw last spring. Common sense would say that both sides have reasons for approving the DH in the National League, why don't they just agree to it and move on to the next item? But no, the owners want a concession to allow a rule change that they'd like to see, too.

It makes sense to push back spring training for a month. It would be a lot easier to go forward if players and support personnel could be vaccinated and infections were trending downward. The players don't want to give back salary for a second straight year. They have relatively short, finite careers in the sport and gave up a lot of their salary last year. There are some solutions available. The easiest would be to push back everything for a month, including the playoffs. Of course, MLB doesn't want to do that for a couple of reasons:

  • TV partners for the playoffs are pushing for a normal time-frame for the postseason, with most of it taking place in October and finishing up as early as possible in November.

  • Delaying the postseason a month to fit in a full schedule would mean playing postseason games in neutral warm weather sites. With the thought that there might be full or close to full stadiums by the fall, teams are unwilling to give up lucrative playoff games ticket sales.

What MLB doesn't have on it's side this time around is the fact set that justified cutting the season off last year. They can't claim the danger of COVID-19 infections spiking in the fall. Actually, more people will be vaccinated the later in the year the playoffs start, with a corresponding lower danger. So MLB owners' desire to delay the start of the season but still end it at the normal time to satisfy the demands of their tv partners while asking the players to take a second straight year of prorated pay is a lot tougher to defend. But it seems likely that they will continue to demand exactly that, and portray the players as unreasonable if they don't agree to it.

Compromises on these issues seem fairly obvious here. Agree on the universal DH, which both sides want. Negotiate for the expanded playoffs that owners want by offering the players something else they want, perhaps a bigger slice of the playoff money. If there is going to be a shortened season, maybe meet halfway on the money. For instance, in the Post, Joel Sherman suggests a 145-game season after a month delay with both sides eating half of the money from the 17 fewer games. That's an actual negotiation, while just demanding the players accept prorated pay for however many games MLB wants to play isn't. MLB teams can't claim to be blindsided by the pandemic this year, so they can choose what they're willing to spend on players with full knowledge that there won't be full ballparks at the beginning of the season.

Word is that the Players Association is worried that agreeing to expanded playoffs gives teams less incentive to spend on free agents in an offseason where things are already progressing quite slow. I'm not so sure of that. While perhaps the top teams would have less concern about making the playoffs, middling clubs would have incentive to add the extra player or two that might push them into the postseason. It would also help to make sure teams that win their divisions gain a substantial advantage for doing so. At any rate, this concern will be less valid the closer we get to an actual season.

Look, both sides have strong incentives not to allow negotiations to degenerate into ugly rancor again after what happened last May. You'd like to believe that will matter but, as Sherman put it in his piece, these two sides are locked into a game of chicken where neither wants to be perceived as giving in first. Unless they're willing to engage in actual good faith negotiating, I have a feeling that those of us on the outside who care deeply about the game are going to continue to experience that uncomfortable "been there, done that" feeling watching the owners and players accelerating head-on towards each other.

Thanks for stopping by today. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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