MLB, MLBPA Discuss Bonus Pool For Pre-Arb Players, Changes To League-Minimum Salary

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After weeks of silence between the two parties, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association met today for a second straight day as they work toward a new collective bargaining agreement. While an agreement is not believed to be anywhere close, there’s at least been some semblance of headway in talks (though the extent of that progress is debatable).

For instance, MLB Network’s Jon Heyman tweets that the MLBPA had sought to raise the minimum salary from $570,500 to $775,000 — but MLB had countered with a proposal for a $600K minimum. (For context, the minimum salary has risen between $7-10K in each of the past several seasons anyhow.) The league today moved that offer forward a bit further, offering a $615K minimum salary for players with less than one year of Major League service time, per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post (Twitter link).

Of course, the value of that “concession” is rather subjective. As Travis Sawchik of The Score observes, in order to keep up with inflation, the league would’ve needed to push the minimum salary to $650K just to match the minimum salary from the start of the 2016-21 collective bargaining agreement. Viewed through that lens, the league’s offer could actually be seen as a step back. The Athletic’s Evan Drellich adds that the minimum salary for players with one to two years of service would be $650K under the current proposal, while players with between two and three years would receive at least a $700K salary.

Interestingly, Sawchik reports that MLB proposed fixed salaries at those league minimum figures for players in each service bucket. While players would presumably still be free to sign early-career contract extensions, that would eliminate the system of teams renewing contracts for pre-arbitration players at amounts slightly higher than the league minimum. As one recent example, the Mets offered Pete Alonso a salary a bit north of $650K in 2020 (nearly $100K more than that year’s league minimum) as a reward for his Rookie of the Year-winning 2019 campaign. Under MLB’s proposal, that kind of deal would no longer be permitted.

Janes adds that the league has also dropped proposed scenarios that would alter the arbitration system and eliminate Super Two status — a designation that allows some players to reach arbitration a year early. Shrinking the number of players who can reach arbitration seems like something that would’ve been a non-starter for the MLBPA anyhow, so as with the incremental increases to the minimum salary, taking that component off the table doesn’t feel like much of a step back.

More interestingly, Major League Baseball agreed to the MLBPA’s proposal for a bonus pool, funded by central revenues, to reward pre-arbitration players (Twitter link via Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal). Pre-arb players would be in line for bonuses based both on Awards voting and on reaching certain Wins Above Replacement markers, Janes notes.

That figures to present its own levels of complication, as there are multiple versions of Wins Above Replacement. Beyond needing to agree on which form of WAR to set as the standard, the concept isn’t likely to sit well with the proprietors of those metrics. Baseball-Reference’s Sean Forman has already taken to Twitter to explain how uncomfortable he is with the notion of players being assigned millions of dollars based on a metric that is constantly undergoing slight tweaks to keep up with changes in the game (his Twitter thread on the matter is well worth a full read). Additionally, as Sports Illustrated’s Emma Baccellieri points out (Twitter link), there are some obvious potential conflicts of interest in tying pre-arb bonuses to awards voting that is conducted by the media members who cover those players.

For this bonus structure to work, the two sides would need to agree on the particulars of the bonus pool — and it does not appear as though they’re remotely close to doing so. While it’s promising, to an extent, that MLB was at least amenable to the union’s proposed framework, ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweets that the MLBPA proposed a $105MM pool from which to reward those players. Not surprisingly, the league balked at that figure and countered with a $10MM pool — a figure at which players surely scoffed. Large as that gap may be, the mere fact that MLB is open to the concept clears the admittedly low bar set to declare progress in these talks.

It bears repeating that elements such as the minimum salary, arbitration and this newly conceptualized bonus pool for pre-arbitration players are all merely pieces of what is a much larger puzzle. The league’s larger priorities still include, perhaps most notably, the expansion of the playoff field — an endgame that would dramatically increase television and gate revenues at the most lucrative point in the MLB schedule. Players, meanwhile, have sought changes to a service-time structure that incentivizes teams to keep prospects in the minors longer than would otherwise be the case, a marked increase in the competitive balance (luxury) tax threshold, and measures to eliminate the incentives for teams to tank — among many other elements.

Suffice it to say, while it’s refreshing to hear of any progress, however slight, between the league and the union — it remains abundantly clear that major headway still needs to be made if Spring Training is to begin in mid-February, as currently scheduled. Most have suggested that a deal would need to be reached by Feb. 1 in order for that outcome.

The greatest concern is that any lack of accord between league and union will ultimately result in some portion of regular-season games being wiped out. Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith and Drellich both suggested last night that Major League Baseball on Monday expressed a willingness to go down that road, if necessary, though the loss of regular-season games still figures to be a last resort and a worst-case scenario on all sides. There’s certainly a middle ground, where Spring Training could perhaps begin in late February or early March, paving the way for a truncated exhibition season and a full 162-game slate.

Whenever an agreement is reached, the league will also need to lift the current transaction freeze, sending front offices and player representatives alike into a frenzy to get the remaining group of unsigned free agents into Spring Training camps as quickly as possible and to resolve any outstanding arbitration cases. Front offices will need to work with fervor to complete any trades or other offseason dealings in an expedited fashion. The longer it takes for the league and union to strike a deal, the more hectic the aftermath of that agreement will be.

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