But one lingers, and will linger throughout the 2021 season, regardless of how the pandemic impacts the game. The collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the players’ union is set to expire on Dec. 1. The two sides will need to agree to a new one before they can do this all again in 2022.
Tony Clark, head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, admitted in an interview with The Washington Post on Thursday that under normal circumstances in a collective bargaining year, the league and the union would already have had some discussions by Opening Day.
But because of the need to negotiate changes to the existing CBA to account for coronavirus concerns, they haven’t had those conversations yet. Clark said he expects them to begin shortly after Opening Day.
“A lot of the focus right now is on wrapping up a successful spring training and getting guys and their families safely to their home city,” Clark said. “… Once guys get settled and everyone gets settled in and the regular season underway, while there will continue to be day-to-day focus on those same moving pieces, there will be more of an opportunity to move the CBA negotiations into the fore.”
Some industry insiders have wondered if MLB and the players’ union might opt to extend the current CBA another year and begin a normal cycle of talks during the 2022 season. Clark said that as of now, he still believes a full-fledged negotiation for a long-term deal is on the table.
“Although the program and the schedule is a little different, there’s still an opportunity to address everything. And unless or until we get into the heavy lifting, we will determine at that point whether to what extent any adjustments to the schedule or otherwise will need to be made,” he said.
CBA negotiations almost always constitute a heavy lift, but people around the game see a particularly strong storm brewing this time around. The two sides underwent a round of contentious negotiations this past spring when they reopened the CBA to accommodate coronavirus needs, and the extent of their divides has become evident over the last season.
On everything from implementing a designated hitter to instituting expanded playoffs, delaying the 2021 season because of the virus or starting on time, the sides signaled mistrust and frustration with each other at nearly every turn. But Clark downplayed the idea that this year’s negotiations will be taking place against a backdrop of elevated animosity.
“There are always going to be differences of opinion. Always have been. Always will be. And unfortunately, I think much of it is a bit overblown,” Clark said. “There are professionals on our side, and there are professionals on their side. And we each have a focus and commitment on making sure that we represent our members, our constituents and the well-being of the game, hopefully.”
Clark acknowledged that those similar interests don’t always yield common ground and was clear that the players have a strong vision of what needs to be improved. In regards to the universal designated hitter — something that was included in this past year’s health and safety protocols but that MLB would not agree to this year — he said, “It made a lot of sense then as it makes a lot of sense now.”
In terms of the expanded postseason, which the league pushed for in 2020, Clark explained that players are more hesitant to commit to something they feel may reduce teams’ incentives to spend on top-dollar free agents. The more teams that make the playoffs, the union argues, the less teams have to do to get there — and the less they are willing to pay for upgrades on players.
But Clark made clear that players’ priorities in upcoming negotiations will lean more toward systemic change, particularly when it comes to the way they are paid and the way revenue sharing is set up.
He said “the trends we are seeing” have “players focused in on creating or establishing a more competitive environment among the teams,” a common frustration among players who believe teams that do not make a concerted effort to win annually should not benefit as substantially from MLB’s revenue-sharing system.
“We want to make sure that there are incentives in the system based on what we have seen for teams to compete and want to be successful, as opposed to rewarding teams for losing — particularly the long, prolonged losing,” said Clark, who didn’t name any teams in particular.
He also outlined a desire to change the way younger players are compensated, another common sticking point among players. Under baseball’s arbitration system, ultra-productive younger players are often far more cost-effective for teams than veterans. That means teams are paying the players who create the most value less than those who don’t bring as much on the field.
“Based on what we’re seeing, we also want to make sure that the younger players that are creating and producing high levels of value are fairly compensated,” Clark said.
Proposing drastic changes to the revenue-sharing system or to how players are compensated will be contentious, and if the sides do not agree to extend the CBA another year, they will have even less time to work through those thorny negotiations than they would in a normal year. If they cannot agree in time, the worst-case scenario would be a prolonged strike — always a devastating outcome for the sport but perhaps even more so after two years of decreased revenue during the coronavirus pandemic. Clark wouldn’t go there yet.
“We go into it as we do each one with an eye on a fair and equitable deal, while acknowledging that our guys are committed and focused on making improvements to the current system based on the trends and the things that we’re seeing,” Clark said. “And we hope that we can find common ground in doing so before the expiration December 1st.”