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Will Owners And Players Play Ball Before Another Strike Is Thrown?

There will be no words more foreboding spoken during this Major League Baseball season than those uttered by Philadelphia Phillies relief pitcher Pat Neshek.

Neshek was asked by USA Today last week whether he expected labor relations between ownership and the players to worsen before the current collective bargaining agreement expires following the 2021 season.

“Right now, there’s going to be a strike, 100 percent, after ’21,” Neshek said. “There’s always kind of been that handshake agreement where we’re still going to value the older guys and not just totally (expletive) on them. And that’s what’s happening. So, I think you’re going to have to burn the whole system down and start with that.

“(Owners) have a lot more to lose than us, I think. The players have been talking about, for the last couple of years, putting money aside and I think we’re going to be ready for a fight. We’re willing to go multiple years and I don’t know if (owners) are willing to sacrifice.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 16: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred speaks at the National Press Club July 16, 2018 in Washington, DC. The MLB All-Star game will be held tomorrow at Nationals Park. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

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While it’s clear players and owners have enjoyed great prosperity over the last quarter century, it’s also clear there is a growing sense of mistrust brewing over the way free agency has stalled over the last two seasons.

Management is using a new equation to evaluate players and has adopted, for the most part, a more conservative financial approach, especially when it comes to offering long-term deals.

Of course, the 10-year, $300 million contract San Diego signed Manny Machado to last week counters that. And it’s almost certain someone will give Bryce Harper similar money. But in general, free agents are receiving less years and less money.

This has not been lost among the players. They feel the system is now rigged against them. They are angry more veterans haven’t reaped bigger rewards for what they’ve already accomplished and that players have to wait so long to even hit the market.

There has not been a work stoppage in MLB since the World Series was canceled in 1994 by an eight-month walkout. But it appears the players are willing to threaten another unless something is done to swing the financial pendulum back to them.

You can expect the players to demand concessions from ownership on two major issues – the luxury tax threshold of $206 million (and unstated salary cap) and the time frame used to determine when a player can qualify for arbitration and free agency.

While you can see room for negotiation regarding lowering the luxury tax, it’s impossible to determine what could be collectively bargained to change the way ownership determines who to pay and how much.

How can you require a team to spend money it doesn’t want to spend? Why do the players feel they have the right to ask for that?

Industry revenues topped $10 billion in 2018, but salaries flattened out, which means the player’s cut of revenue has dipped. So if this continues to be problematic, the players will need to decide how to go about changing it.

“What do we do?” Phillies outfielder and former NL MVP Andrew McCutchen said. “What can we do to even the playing field on both sides? That’s the question.”

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 11: Bryce Harper #34 of the Washington Nationals speaks to the press during Media Availability for the 87th Annual MLB All-Star game at the Manchester Grand Hyatt on July 11, 2016 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

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Players with less than three years of service time have pre-determined salaries near the league minimum. Then there’s three seasons of arbitration that precede free agency in year seven. Teams like Oakland, Tampa and San Diego rely heavily on younger talent, which cuts their payroll and brings average salaries down.

Owners have used another trick. They keep top prospects in the minors long enough to secure another year of service, therefore delaying free agency. You likely will see that this spring in the way Toronto handles Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and San Diego manipulates Fernando Tatis, Jr.

This leads to three negotiating points. Free agency can be dropped from seven years, arbitration from three years and minimum salaries increased from $555,000 in 2019.

Then the problem becomes, what will the players be willing to give up in return?

Perhaps the owners will want changes made to the game, like a pitch clock, imposing a minimum number of hitters a reliever must face, abolishing the designated hitter in the National League.

Perhaps owners might agree to give the players one more spot on rosters (from 25 to 26) in return for a salary concession on the other side. Maybe a team could be required to spend a minimum amount in payroll?

At some point over the next three seasons, the players and owners will begin to draw battle lines that could bring contentiousness – or peace – to the bargaining table.

There seems to be a lot of room on both sides for give and take, the key finding a way to get players to free agency quicker and paying them more during the first few years of their careers.

Owners might be willing to agree if the players allow them to make the kind of changes they feel will speed up the game and make it more appealing to the general public.

If Neshek is right, tough times are coming in MLB. But if common sense prevails, the game could become even greater by the time the 2022 season begins.

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