It’s been 65 days since MLB’s last collective bargaining agreement expired, 64 days since the league’s management locked out its workforce, and 22 days since baseball’s 30 owners made their first proposal to the 1,200-member players association for a new agreement.
And while the sides haven’t gotten particularly close to resolving the myriad of issues between them in the time since, they have at least begun to speak a similar conceptual language on several negotiating fronts as the spectre of a delayed spring training and cancelled regular season games slowly crystalizes from theoretical possibility to inescapable reality with each passing day.
That’s … progress? So low is the bar for headway in these negotiations that it qualifies. The devil’s in the details, of course, where a considerable gap remains between the sides as to how some of these concepts would be enacted. But, for now, we at least can see some rough structures that could form the foundation of the next CBA.
Let’s look at what we’ve learned so far about what that new agreement could look like — and how those factors would impact the Toronto Blue Jays, specifically.
This is the big one for the Blue Jays and would be a welcome development coming off a 91-win season that ended with the club one game out of playoff position. Sharing a division with the deep-pocketed, regularly contending New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, plus an innovative Tampa Bay Rays organization that boasts a .615 winning percentage since 2019 and one of baseball’s best farm systems, is never going to be easy. But having an extra playoff spot or two up for grabs would make it a little less daunting.
And, thanks to the immense revenue windfall that would accompany it through national television deals, an expanded postseason seems like an inevitability at the end of this negotiation. It’s the owners’ biggest desire and the players’ most powerful bargaining chip. Whether the field expands a little to 12 or a lot to 14, it’s tough to envision a scenario in which the 10-team status quo continues.
Of course, even with the bar for playoff entry lowered, the Blue Jays still ought to build a team that projects to win in excess of 91 games next season and contend for an AL East title, rather than settling for one that looks merely good enough to claim a wild-card spot. There will presumably still be incentive for winning one’s division, whether it’s bypassing the postseason’s opening round or choosing a wild-card opponent. Considering the inherently fluky nature of a small-sample series, those privileges are well worth competing for.
And with a roster already featuring a mix of emerging young stars and established veteran producers, the Blue Jays owe it to themselves and their fans to continue adding as much talent and building out as much depth as possible. There would be substantial opportunity cost to not maximizing this competitive window. Toronto’s goal should be to win the AL East. But considering what a tough hill that routinely is to climb, it can only be viewed as a positive for the Blue Jays to have more margin for error should they not reach that height.
Arbitration and free agency
While the union entered this negotiation seeking a quicker path to free agency for its players than the current six years of MLB service required, it quickly became clear that would be a no-fly zone for the owners and the pursuit was dropped. That means the Blue Jays will continue to hold club control over emerging superstars Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette through the 2025 season, at which point they’ll be eligible to test the open market as free agents.
That’s good news for the Blue Jays, who can bake in cost control of two franchise cornerstones for the next four years while planning how to build out rosters around them, and bad news for Guerrero and Bichette, who will continue to have their earning power artificially suppressed during what could be their most productive seasons.
And while the union has proposed starting arbitration eligibility at two years of MLB service, which would make Bichette eligible this winter as opposed to next, that idea doesn’t appear to have gained much traction. As of now, it seems unlikely that the current arbitration system would change substantially.
Same goes for the Super Two system, which grants early arbitration eligibility to the top 22 per cent of players with between two to three years of service time, a class Guerrero currently belongs to. That means the Blue Jays can use historical precedents to project the maximum amount Guerrero and Bichette will cost them in salaries going forward with a high degree of confidence and better plan today’s acquisitions around tomorrow’s payrolls.
But one thing that could change is the creation of a bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, which would reward top, early-career performers with windfalls in addition to their salaries. As one of MLB’s most productive hitters in 2021, Guerrero would have qualified for a sizable bonus that dwarfed his $605,400 salary under the proposed system. Bichette likely would’ve qualified for one, too, and is a decent bet to receive a bonus in 2022 if the system is established and his upward career trajectory continues.
That likely wouldn’t mean anything for the Blue Jays payroll, with bonus pool money slated to come out of central MLB revenues. But it could dramatically increase 2022 earnings for pre-arbitration players Bichette or Alek Manoah — and even the earnings potential of a top prospect such as Gabriel Moreno, who’s yet to make his MLB debut but expected to be an impactful talent once he does.
Speaking of Moreno, the union and league have exchanged various proposals to address the service-time manipulation of baseball’s top prospects. It’s a particularly intriguing development to arise from this negotiation, as it sees owners indirectly acknowledging that franchises have at times kept major-league talent in the minors, prioritizing contractual control over fielding the most competitive team possible. That practice undermines the league’s integrity and serves only owners seeking to limit the future cost they must pay for young, high-end talent.
To address this, the union has sought to award a full year of service to rookies who reach various award and statistical benchmarks, while the league has suggested awarding draft picks to teams with top-100 prospects that become finalists for major awards within their first three seasons. That could be impactful for the Blue Jays if Moreno — ranked the game’s No. 7 overall prospect by Baseball America last month — realizes the All-Star potential many believe he possesses.
The 2021 season provides an interesting case study of what that could look like. Under the league’s proposal, Guerrero would have netted the Blue Jays a 2022 draft pick after the first round thanks to finishing as the MVP runner-up in his third MLB season.
Manoah, meanwhile, would have been on the threshold of a substantial award under the union’s initial proposal, which would see any rookie starting pitcher finishing among their league’s top 30 at the position in an average of bWAR and fWAR receive a full year’s service time. At the end of his stellar rookie campaign, Manoah ranked No. 25 among AL starters with 2.8 bWAR and No. 30 with 2.0 fWAR.
Called up eight weeks in to Toronto’s season, Manoah didn’t come close to accruing a full year’s service in 2021, meaning the Blue Jays will control him via arbitration through the 2027 season. But under the union’s proposal, Manoah could have been awarded a full year’s service, allowing him to reach free agency a year earlier.
However, a subsequent player proposal this week tapered the field of rookie starting pitchers eligible for the service award from 30 to 20, which likely would have meant Manoah narrowly missed the cut if the system was in place last season. Such a large proposal-to-proposal reduction is potentially an indication of the league’s opposition to an overhaul this substantial. Still, if any pre-arbitration bonus pool is established, Manoah could have a couple more cracks at increasing his earnings via performance and awards voting before he qualifies for arbitration.
It seems certain that the minimum salary for players who do not yet qualify for arbitration will increase in the next CBA. The dispute between players and owners is by how much.
Players have proposed a flat rate of $775,000; owners have suggested a scale of $615,000 in the first year of MLB service, $650,000 in the second, and $700,000 in the third. But an additional layer proposed by the owners that would see those minimum salaries capped — essentially causing them to function as maximums — could have an added impact on the Blue Jays, specifically.
In recent years, the Blue Jays have taken a standardized, formulaic approach to settling contracts with pre-arbitration players, using MLB service and the prior season’s playing time to determine salary offers on a sliding scale.
Spend time on the big-league roster? Your salary renewal goes up at a set rate per day of MLB service. Make a bunch of plate appearances as a hitter or mound appearances as a pitcher? The figure increases a little more. Get recognized with an MLB award or receive an All-Star selection? That’s worth another $10,000.
It’s why Jacob Waguespack (who was outrighted off the 40-man roster during spring training) was set to earn a $589,800 salary entering 2021, while Santiago Espinal (who went on to lead the Blue Jays in games played at third base) earned just $578,800. Waguespack had more MLB service and 2020 playing time entering the season, which led the formula to churn out a higher figure than Espinal’s despite the extremely disparate roles they were slated to play for the team.
But that process may not be allowable going forward if pre-arbitration salaries are capped. That would likely produce marginal salary savings for the Blue Jays, but would also cost the club an arguably more important demonstration of good will in which it ties the value of those salaries directly to the contributions players make to the team.
Even with the proposed minimum salary increases, MLB clubs still stand to reap immense surplus value from productive pre-arbitration players. But the Blue Jays specifically stand to lose any intangible benefit in player satisfaction the club’s current system provides.
The competitive-balance tax
With both sides having proposed a higher competitive balance-tax threshold — the players, naturally, are seeking a much more substantial increase than the owners, many of whom have long treated the CBT as a de facto salary cap — it seems likely that teams will have more financial wiggle room for player salaries going forward before facing the penalties that currently kick in once a club spends in excess of $210 million.
Of course, only two teams — the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres — surpassed the threshold in 2021, while five others spent north of $205 million but south of $210 million. The Blue Jays, meanwhile, didn’t even approach that level of spending. And, as club president Mark Shapiro indicated in October, don’t plan to any time soon. That would likely necessitate Rogers Centre being either substantially renovated or replaced with a new stadium that allows the franchise to generate more annual revenue from its home schedule.
But the Blue Jays could still be impacted by a higher CBT, as they share a division with two teams — the Yankees and Red Sox — that have surpassed the threshold in recent seasons and were among the five to edge right up to it in 2021. If those clubs have more money to spend while staying under an increased CBT threshold, they’ll be better positioned to paper over roster deficiencies with free agents and remain competitive year over year.
That would only increase pressure on the Blue Jays — a team owned by Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet — to continually identify, acquire, develop and transition young, high-end, cost-effective talent to the majors from its minor-league system. And to reliably hit on bargain, bounce-back free agent deals as it did with Robbie Ray and Marcus Semien in 2021. Barring a dramatic and unprecedented increase in payroll, that’s the best way the franchise could keep up with the massive and expanding spending power of its division rivals.
A draft lottery
The concept of a draft lottery for non-postseason clubs was an obvious ask on the players’ side, as the union seeks to disincentivize teams from tanking. But that the owners have proposed their own version of a lottery concept in response is an interesting development, one that, as with service time manipulation, indirectly acknowledges that some franchises have purposefully sought to lose games in order to improve draft position.
Of course, anyone paying attention knows that’s true. And a less competitive league is a less compelling one for fans, who ultimately fuel the massive revenues that owners and players are debating how to split up. If more teams try to win, more fans will stay engaged with the sport throughout a six-month season. Which is why a lottery ultimately makes sense for both sides.
Where this gets interesting for the Blue Jays is that the debate hinges on how many top draft picks would be available in the lottery (players want more; owners want less) — not how many teams would be eligible to win one. That means that if a situation like the 2021 season repeated itself, in which the Blue Jays finished with the best record of all non-playoff teams, the club would still have a remote possibility of securing one of the draft’s top selections.
The Blue Jays are obviously in the midst of a competitive window in which they’ll be doing everything they can to qualify for the postseason and avoid the draft lottery altogether. And if the club’s vision of sustained contention materializes, it will never enjoy the best odds of picking highest in the draft.
But that the club would still have an opportunity to win a high pick in any years it narrowly misses the postseason is still a minor benefit likely to come from these negotiations. A single-digit percentage chance at the first-overall pick is preferable to the automatic No. 23 overall selection the Blue Jays received at the conclusion of the 2021 season. Missing the playoffs by a game isn’t a scenario the Blue Jays will be hoping for. But it is one that feels awfully familiar.