It was a quiet morning in spring training in 2014, but Shane Victorino was agitated.
Critics had been piling on the Phillies for extending Ryan Howard’s contract a few years earlier. With injuries mounting, his numbers declining, and $85 million still owed to him, Howard’s deal was ridiculed as one of the most onerous in baseball. But Victorino, then with the Boston Red Sox, defended his friend and former teammate by noting that Howard made close to the minimum salary — $316,000 and $355,000, to be precise — in 2005 and 2006, his Rookie of the Year and National League MVP seasons.
The point is, it’s nothing new that baseball’s salary structure is upside down. Players have long been underpaid early in their careers, when they often have their best seasons. And after getting outmuscled in each of the last two collective bargaining agreements, the MLB Players Association is finally attempting to do something about it.
As much as any issue in baseball’s CBA saga, the union is digging in on more money for young players. Among its proposals: a sizable raise in the entry-level salary, a bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, and an additional year of major-league service time for players who reach performance thresholds. It makes sense for the MLBPA to fight for such things. More than half of its roughly 1,200 members are not eligible for salary arbitration (read: at the bottom end of the pay scale) based on their less than three years of service.
But those are also the players who will be most affected if, as expected, an agreement isn’t reached by the scheduled start of spring training on Feb. 16 and the owners don’t rescind the lockout that they directed commissioner Rob Manfred to enact on Dec. 2. In trying to maintain control over the timing of negotiations on a new CBA, the owners will turn many of the least-tenured, lowest-paid players into collateral damage.
Imagine, for instance, being James McArthur.
A 25-year-old right-hander and 2018 12th-round pick, McArthur had a 4.48 ERA at double-A Reading last season. The Phillies added him to the 40-man roster in November to avoid losing him in the Rule 5 draft, which wound up being postponed because of the lockout. Now, as many of the Phillies’ double-A and triple-A pitchers gear up for a minicamp later this month that will precede the start of minor-league spring training on March 5, McArthur, who lost a season of development in 2020 because of the pandemic, is locked out from attending due to his roster status.
Now meet catcher Donny Sands. After an 18-homer breakout in triple A last season, he got added to the New York Yankees’ 40-man roster in November and traded to the Phillies. Sands, who turns 26 in May, would benefit from going to the minicamp and getting acquainted with a new group of pitchers before competing for the backup catcher job in what figures to be his best chance yet to make his major-league debut. Instead, he’s locked out, too.
And then there’s Símon Muzziotti. Like all minor leaguers, he didn’t have a season in 2020. But the 23-year-old Venezuelan center fielder also missed all but the final few weeks of last season because visa issues prevented him from entering the country. The last thing Muzziotti needs is another interruption in his development. If only he wasn’t among the half-dozen outfielders on the Phillies’ frozen 40-man roster.
The lockout strikes again.
Every team has similar untold stories. The owners could choose to end the lockout and open major-league camps on time as negotiations continue. But the lockout is a “defensive” tactic, as Manfred explained in December, to “control the timing of the dispute.” In 1994, MLB opened the season without a CBA in place. The players went on strike in August and forced a cancellation of the postseason, a peak time for revenues for the owners.
“We wanted to take that option away,” Manfred said on Dec. 2, his most recent public comments.
MLB didn’t meet with the players about core economics for 42 days after the lockout began. The owners have been intractable on the six-year reserve period for free agency or changes to revenue sharing. So, the players have focused on higher pay for entry-level players. But over the past few weeks, the sides have slung proposals back and forth that accomplished little more than proving how far apart they are.
For example, the players want to hike the minimum salary to $750,000 from $575,500 last year; the owners are proposing a fixed $615,000 figure that can’t be raised at a team’s discretion. The owners agreed to the players’ concept of a pre-arbitration bonus pool that would reward young players for performance. But while the players are seeking a $100 million pool, the owners’ proposal calls for a $10 million pool.
To the players’ dismay, MLB and the owners haven’t broached the topic of the competitive-balance tax since the lockout began. At that time, the players sought to raise the threshold to $245 million (from $210 million last year) and reduce the penalties for surpassing it; the owners proposed a $214 million threshold and a doubling of the penalties.
Maybe it’s all part of a tactic to weaken the union by dragging out the lockout until the players grow desperate for a resolution. The players insist they’re unified in pursuing changes to a system that, based on a four-year decrease in average salary, has been working against them.
MLB made a request Thursday for assistance from a federal mediator, but the players declined third-party intervention.
And so, the lockout goes on and on — and with no end in sight and nary a mention of McArthur, Sands, Muzziotti, or the dozens of other young players on 40-man rosters who should be soaking in the experience of major-league camp this month but instead can’t even attend spring training with their fellow minor leaguers.