MLB Staves Off Labor Crisis For Now

MLB players like Aaron Judge (left) and Jose Altuve will benefit from the deal the union and league officials made last week.
MLB players like Aaron Judge (left) and Jose Altuve will benefit from the deal the union and league officials made last week. Photo by Jack Gorman
Last week, Major League Baseball and the players' union came to an agreement on terms during the Coronavirus pandemic. While this may just seem like another business figuring out what to do while everyone is out of work, it is quite a bit more complicated for professional sports who operate under a collective bargaining agreement, which shields them from most antitrust laws.

With the current agreement set to expire on December 1, 2021, there was already a fight brewing over the terms of a new agreement, but it was made even more difficult because the league has had to call off games due to the pandemic. Much of the season could be in jeopardy, which affects not only player salaries on a game-by-game basis, but also things like contract incentives — it could be tougher for a pitcher to earn an innings pitched bonus in a virus-shortened season.

Part of the existing CBA allows Major League Baseball to not pay players during a "national emergency," of which this certainly qualifies. But given the unique situation and just how close this is to actual bargaining for a new agreement, MLB made some concessions and the end result is a good thing for both sides.

The biggest results of the deal relate to, no surprise, compensation. For one, MLB will give $170 million to the players, mostly for the lower earning guys. That's not much when you consider there are teams with higher payrolls, but it's better than nothing, which the league could have paid without a short-term deal. And the money is non-refundable, so the players keep it even if they don't play at all.

Perhaps the biggest element of the deal is that players will be given credit for a full year of time even in an abbreviated season. MLB players accrue time each year when they spend at least 172 days with a team that amounts to a full season. That time is factored into how much money they can make as veterans, when they are due for free agency versus arbitration, etc. It's important.

This has the potential to be a real problem for some teams, however. Any team that signed a player to a one-year deal or traded for someone who will be a free agent after this season might see the player walk after playing only a handful of games or, worse yet, not playing at all.

But, by agreeing to this — and to arbitration based on the shortened season, not on what might have been in a longer season — MLB clearly gives the players some breathing room and extends an olive branch to them as they head toward the more important bargaining table in the offseason. No one wants the December, 2021 deadline looming into next year or any bad blood going into an offseason of negotiations.

The loser in this deal are potential draftees. MLB has the right to shorten the draft and even limit compensation for signing bonuses. But neither existing players nor the brass in baseball care about players who aren't in the league yet and may never be anyway. It made the most sense to sacrifice them in the name of keeping lines of communication open between team owners and current players.

Overall, the deal certainly felt far more amicable than many thought it might be. The level of acrimony seen back in 1994-95 nearly destroyed professional baseball in America and there are plenty in baseball who remember what could have been. They don't plan to make that mistake again and this is certainly a good first step.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jeff Balke is a writer, editor, photographer, tech expert and native Houstonian. He has written for a wide range of publications and co-authored the official 50th anniversary book for the Houston Rockets.
Contact: Jeff Balke