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MLB, MLBPA pursuing unprecedented mid-agreement bargaining

The Major League Baseball Players Association’s desire to a return of “meaningful free agency”, improved player marketing, and an end to service time manipulation for rookie players has helped to prompt the union to pursue the first round of mid-term economic bargaining in its 53-year history.

The union’s current collective bargaining agreement with MLB, signed in late 2016, runs through the 2021 season. But two straight off-seasons with historically slow free agent signing activity and fast-rising unrest among players have moved the organization toward this unusual step. 

Union executive director Tony Clark said prior to the July 9 All-Star Game in Cleveland, Ohio, he does not know where the bargaining sessions will lead, but acknowledged the players are looking to better manage an accelerating pace of economic change around the game.

Management first proposed early bargaining more than a year ago in response to union concerns, and the two sides are now exchanging dates for future negotiating sessions. 

“We are interested in re-establishing a competitive environment,” Clark said. “We are interested in restoring meaningful free agency. We are interested in getting players something closer to their value as they are producing it. We are interested in ensuring that the best players are on the field at all times. We are interested in improving the dynamic for entry-level players. And we are interested in getting to a point where how our game is marketed and how our game is promoted is something that is more beneficial than where we currently sit.”

Clark also said team’s approaches to the past two free agent markets been in the union’s view “more structured and more coordinated,” language seen in some circles as industry code for collusion. Clark refused to actually use the word collusion. But he said the player markets “seem different than we’ve seen in the past, and as a result of that, has us reflecting on those systems.”

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the owners remain fully prepared to live under the current labor terms. And despite Clark’s complaints, Manfred said baseball has the “freest free agency” of any major US pro sport, pointing to the lack of constraints such as a salary cap, maximum salaries, or franchise tags common in other leagues. Manfred also laid the onus squarely on the MLBPA to recommend structural economic changes.

“[The current system] produced the contracts that Mike Trout got [with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim], that Bryce Harper got [with the Philadelphia Phillies], that Manny Machado got [with the San Diego Padres],” Manfred said, referring to a trio of long-term deals signed this past off-season and each worth more than $300m (€267m). “If in fact Tony has an idea about how he wants to make that process different, we’ve told him – and so I’m willing to say it here – you need to tell us what mechanisms you think will address your concerns about the market.”

Manfred, meanwhile, also said the Tampa Bay Rays’ exploration of a two-city franchise existence with Montreal is continuing following last month’s approval of such a consideration by the league’s Executive Council. And notably, the commissioner said other MLB team owners could be willing to forfeit the potential expansion bounty that placing a new franchise in the Canadian city might generate in order to preserve the economic health of the Rays. 

Though MLB has consistently tabled any serious notion of league expansion until the stadium issues of the Rays and Oakland A’s are solved, an expansion fee could easily surpass $1 billion, one that the league would forego in this consideration of Montreal.

“I think the owners are prepared to live with the idea that [the Rays] would operate in two markets,” Manfred said. “It’s kind of in the free lunch category. There is no such thing as a free lunch. We have an issue in Tampa. It needs to get resolved somehow. If it means we give up a potential expansion site to solidify where we are, so be it.”

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