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MLB, players’ union meet in person for the first time and plan to talk again Tuesday

MLBPA drops push for earlier start to free agency; MLB official cites ‘spirited’ exchange

Major League Baseball deputy commissioner Dan Halem, center, arrives for a negotiating session Monday in New York. (Craig Ruttle/AP)
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NEW YORK — For the first time since Major League Baseball’s team owners locked out the players in early December, a small contingent of MLB officials made the five-minute trek from their midtown Manhattan headquarters to those of the union Monday. The sides hadn’t met in person since before the lockout began.

They met for just over two hours Monday afternoon in what an MLB official euphemistically referred to as a “spirited” exchange, one in which the MLB Players Association dropped one of its biggest demands — reducing the time before players reach free agency from six years to five, according to multiple people familiar with the discussions — in an attempt to create some momentum.

The move seems to have achieved that, at least to some extent, because after nearly eight weeks of relative silence that included one video negotiation session, MLB and the union plan to meet again Tuesday. Still, representatives from both sides emphasized that a deal remains far off.

From MLB’s perspective, the union’s decision to stop pushing for change to the free agency system represented a prerequisite to productive negotiations. MLB representatives have maintained that the owners would never agree to a deal that includes that provision.

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Those same representatives have maintained that reduced time before free agency was one of three issues on which they simply would not budge. The other two are revenue sharing among teams, which the union hopes to reduce to prevent losing teams from collecting revenue without competing, and expanding the Super Two designation, the process by which the game’s elite young players reach arbitration faster than most of their peers.

The union also altered its proposal to reduce revenue sharing, according to multiple people familiar with the offer. Instead of reducing the total amount of revenue shared among teams by around $100 million, as they originally proposed, union representatives told MLB that they would accept a reduction of about $30 million. To this point, the owners and their representatives have said they will not accept a reduction of any size.

But those sticking points are merely the roadblocks that have kept the sides apart until this point, not the only ones standing in the way of a deal. The sides remain apart on changes to the draft, minimum salaries, the collective bargaining tax and more.

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Generally speaking, the players are seeking major systemic change to a status quo they believe grew more and more unfavorable over the past few collective bargaining agreements. They want younger players to be paid more, in large part because teams have found that younger players are more cost-controlled than similarly productive veterans, which means older players are being pushed out of jobs and younger ones are making less than they should, given what they’re producing on the field. In a related push, the players want to implement a system to deter what they believe is widespread service-time manipulation — the process by which teams keep young stars in the minor leagues to postpone their free agency as long as possible.

The players also want to push teams away from perennial losing, something they believe can be addressed, in part, by creating an expansive draft lottery that means the team with the worst record is not guaranteed the first pick.

MLB, meanwhile, seems content to keep the next agreement in line with the previous one, though its representatives have made proposals they believe address the players’ concerns. They have proposed a system of draft pick compensation for teams that begin a season with young stars on their rosters, rewarding those who call up players when they are ready as measured, in part, by awards those young players win after they arrive. They also have proposed a draft lottery — but a smaller one than the players want: In MLB’s proposal, the team with the worst record is guaranteed to pick no lower than fourth. In the players’ proposal, that team could fall as far as ninth.

Those details and many others are not insignificant, and with pitchers and catchers scheduled to report to spring training in mid-February, time is running out to sort through them before the season is affected. Both sides privately have said they are willing to miss games. Both sides would lose money if that happened. And perhaps it will.

But on a chilly Monday afternoon in Manhattan, the sides finally met in person. That they plan to do so again Tuesday represents a relative quickening of the pace of negotiations. How much progress follows remains to be seen.