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The curious case of MLB’s attempt to get the MLBPA to sign off on future contractions of the Minor Leagues

Rob Manfred and the team owners channeled their inner Monty Burns in their latest offer to the MLBPA

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MLB Owners Meetings
Rob Manfred at his press conference after the MLB owner’s meeting last week.
Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

It is a bit of a caricature of villains to imagine them in a large boardroom twisting a mustache as they tweak their evil plans to ensure they have a maximum impact on the people who can least afford to take the brunt of their raw power play. After Jeff Passan of ESPN reported on MLB’s latest presentation to the MLBPA laying out a 28-point plan on transactions in relation to a little-discussed MLBPA proposal to limit the number of times a player can be optioned to the minors over the course of a season, you’ll forgive me if I’ve determined the only thing that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred is missing is the mustache.

You see, MLB is willing to limit the number of times a player can be optioned. They just have some conditions. Conditions like the MLBPA signing off on a potential 16.7 percent decrease in the number of non-unionized Minor League Baseball players in the league in 2023, according to Passan’s reporting:

Currently, the Domestic Reserve List — which governs the number of minor league players a team can roster at any time — is at 180. The league proposed keeping the number at 180 for 2022 but allowing the commissioner’s office to reduce the maximum number of players “below 150” over the rest of the collective-bargaining agreement, sources said. The proposal says the league could adjust the reserve list’s size “up or down.”

Further down in the article Passan clarifies that the flexibility to slash the hopes and dreams of minor leaguers is related to limiting the number of times a player can be optioned in a season:

The potential roster trimming was part of a 28-point package on transactions that included a proposal to limit the number of options — or times a player can be returned from the major leagues to the minor leagues in one season — to five, according to sources. Currently, teams hold unlimited options on qualifying players within a single season, allowing the shuttling of some between Triple-A and the major leagues.

Inserting bargaining language about the non-unionized minor leagues is a bit of a headscratcher as I’ll explain below, but after some thought and research I’ve concluded it’s a calculated attempt on the part of MLB to backdoor the players’ union into sanctioning the league’s future draconian actions with regards to MiLB. That’s a pretty serious accusation, and I’ll walk you through how I got there in this piece; however, before I get into why I think this particular tit-for-tat is so odious, let’s get some facts out of the way regarding MiLB options, pay and the impact a proposal like MLB’s above has on both sets of players.

Limiting options during a season

The terms of the bargaining item referenced in MLB’s presentation is this nugget Evan Drellich of The Athletic tweeted after Saturday’s recent Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiating section, pay particular attention to the end:

“...the players are also concerned about what else comes along with MLB’s proposal to limit to 5. It has other changes attached to it.”

Indeed, changes like sanctioning MLB’s future slashing of 16.7 percent of MiLB less than two years after contracting the minors by 25 percent.

Why limits to optioning matter

Limiting the number of times a player can be optioned during a season has been discussed substantially less than some other items on the negotiating table. And look, I totally understand why items like the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, minimum wage proposals, and what constitutes a year of service time have taken center stage during the Lockout. However, limiting the number of times a player can be optioned during a season can have a pretty big impact on the amount of money they make during a season. Ryan Fagan of the Sporting News did a good job laying out the substantial bumps in pay that come with landing on the 40-man roster, or being called up during the course of a season, but it’s critical to note those amounts are still a lot less than the MLB league minimum:

Before we go any further, let’s be clear to emphasize that the numbers we just listed were dealing strictly in regular-season salary minimums. Players, especially at the Triple-A level, can make more money, for a variety of reasons. For example, landing on the 40-man roster comes with an automatic increase — players are immediately covered by the Collective Bargaining Agreement between MLB and the MLBPA and make $46,000 a year on their first MLB contract, playing in the minors. For a second MLB contract, the minimum jumps to $93,000. Players who have signed minor league free-agent deals can make significantly more money.

The per diem amounts MLB players receive are also four times higher than their Triple-A counterparts. That may not sound like a lot relative to a full-time MLB salary, but having $100 a day v. $25 a day is certainly a lot relative to MiLB pay, so curtailing the number of times a player can be optioned during a season can have a big impact on the bottom lines of the players who make the least amount of money on an MLB roster. Danny Rockett and I discussed this issue during the first half of the latest episode of Cuppa Cubbie Blue:

Minor league efficiency

More than a few people were speculating about possible motivations behind MLB’s request to cut the minors. Baseball Prospectus’ Craig Goldstein suggested it’s about making cheaper MiLB budgets the rule as opposed to merely an option:

While I have no doubt that this is about saving money for teams, the amount of money we are talking about is so incredibly small relative to MLB’s overall revenue. To give you an idea of exactly how small an amount of money we are discussing here, check out this tweet from Cubs Insider blogger Evan Altman, who noted the amount of money it costs to roster 30 extra Triple-A players is less than a rounding error to a Major League team:

That led to this interesting back and forth with the creator of xStats, Andrew Perpetua:

You should check out the whole exchange, but Perpetua’s argument seems apt to me. Basically, MLB would like to outsource the riskier parts of its development portfolio to college and independent ball so they can focus their resources on the players they believe are more likely to play in MLB someday. The fact that that saves some money just makes it smart business. FanGraphs’ Meg Rowley summed up the player development risk associated with the strategy of further contracting the minor leagues succinctly:

MLB doesn’t need MLBPA approval to contract MiLB

But beyond MLB’s never ending quest to go full McKinsey on the nation’s pastime, the thing that troubled me most about this development was more basic. Specifically, I’m reasonably sure MLB doesn’t need the MLBPA’s permission to cut minor league teams or roster spots.

I spent some time searching through the most recent version of the CBA and I’ll spare you all the boring steps, but there is nothing about the size of the minor leagues or the domestic reserve pool limits in the document. However, I’m not a lawyer and I figured I could be missing an addendum or something, so I decided to look back to the previous MiLB contraction. Surely, if the MLBPA needed to approve a future contraction they would have done the same in the past, right? After all, there hasn’t been a new agreement negotiated in full since 2016.

Baseball America has a very handy timeline of the previous MiLB contraction and the MLBPA approving that contraction is nowhere to be found in it. So why would MLB put something on the negotiating table that it doesn’t need approval for? Passan followed up with this late last night:

You see, even league “concessions” are Trojan horses designed to sneak previously rejected language passed the MLBPA. This isn’t about reality where MLB has almost total control of Minor League Baseball, down to asking them to indemnify the league before they even saw a 10-year contract as a prerequisite to remain affiliated with MLB. The Minor Leagues are not unionized and the MLBPA represents players on the 40-man, not the vast majority of the Minor Leagues. MLB can, and likely will, contract the minors at some point in the near future when it’s convenient to them — but for now, it appears that it was convenient for them to try and make the MLBPA accomplices in their nefarious scheme

But why?

I went through a long list of hunches as to what MLB is up to here and came to the unsatisfactory conclusion that maybe this is just another attempt to drive a wedge between the haves and the have nots in the union, along with hoping for a healthy side of negative PR for the players.

From an inciting union infighting perspective, players who can be better described as thousdandaires than millionaires have been outspoken about the plight of minor league players. And even though most minor leaguers are not represented by the MLBPA at any point in their career I have to believe that at least some MLB players are looking out for the guys coming up behind them.

Meanwhile, MLB is paying a lawyer $775 an hour to fight a class action lawsuit on behalf of minor leaguers who are suing because they didn’t make minimum wage during their minor league playing time. The absurdity of paying a lawyer such an astronomical rate to avoid paying below poverty line wages to workers is a special type of heinous.

From a PR angle, linking the players to a deal to accept the loss of 16.7 percent of jobs in the minors for small concessions that make their life easier has a small added benefit of tarnishing MLB’s opposition right as the public’s attention turns to baseball. I’m not sure to what extent public opinion can actually sway CBA negotiations, but I imagine billionaires are happy to give it a try.

Honestly these explanations are possible, but not all that satisfactory. If you want a satisfactory answer you need to check out this whole thread from Eugene Freedman, a union lawyer and counsel to the President of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, who comments on baseball’s labor issues on Twitter from time to time:

These two tweets in particular get at a possible motivation for why MLB keeps trying to insert language about the size of the domestic reserve list into a collective bargaining agreement that is being negotiated with a separate entity. First up, preventing possible law suits either from teams who are inclined to spend more or from localities who lost franchises:

Second, and potentially even more interesting, inserting this language in the CBA could be a way to backstop a possible future rollback of MLB’s antitrust exemption, as Eugene explains below:

Now seems like a good time to remind people that this bombshell is being attached to a relatively small, obscure CBA negotiating point. Tying language that has potentially broad implications for farm systems and the future of how MLB and MiLB interact to even small changes tells us a lot about the tone and tenor of these negotiations. It also provides some insight as to why Saturday’s meeting lasted less than a hour.

But rising above the fray for a moment, the fact that these tactics are coming out as the deadline for pitchers and catchers to report has come and gone doesn’t give me a lot of faith that an agreement is anywhere close to done. The league and the owners who are supposed to carry the trust of the nation’s pastime seem more interested in building in trap doors for some future machination than starting this year’s Spring Training on time. Furthermore, they don’t appear to have any awareness of the outrageous of their suggestions.

I’m relieved that Passan’s reporting indicates the MLBPA will not accept this condition and I’m equally encouraged that his reporting indicates they’ve rejected it multiple times. However, this glimpse into some of the details of the bargaining agreement highlights how big some of the stakes for this CBA truly are. I hope the MLBPA is prepared to stand firm against future ticking time bombs that MLB might want to insert in the CBA, even as the pressure of missing Spring Training or regular season games looms.