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Mismatched Sox: The CBA and the Art of Mutually Assured Anger

by Ed Siebert
Published: Last Updated on

A QUICK WORD ON THIS BLOG

If you’ve never read this blog before, when it was at SoxInTheBasement.com, it is the companion writing to the Sox in the Basement podcast. Things discussed here may have been discussed there. And it is an honor to be in the same space as the rest of the excellent Sox On 35th staff. Views herein may not reflect the views of the Sox On 35th management, or anyone with a reasonable amount of intelligence.


C (ya, wouldn’t wanna) B (ya) A (?)

So you want to make heads or tails of the labor negotiations? Wondering whether arbitration, or a salary floor, or taking 30.5 days off the service time, or any of the issues are the real linchpin? Mad that millionaires and billionaires are fighting over who gets more pie? Pie that’s filled by fans’ money? With a crust baked by the heat of passionate fandom??

Well, wonder and grouse no more. The answer is really none of the above matters. What matters is that the other side walks away mad.


JUST DON’T GO TO BED THIS WAY

The internet credits Larry David with coining the phrase “A good compromise is when both parties are dissatisfied”. While Larry David said it well and in hilarious context, the adage is older than Curb Your Enthusiasm. Even older than Seinfeld. It might predate the sitcom. But the idea is nonetheless relevant: the owners cannot have the players feel like they won and feel empowered. If that happens, the players will be tempted to read into every questionable contract situations as owner collusion or some other basic breach of the labor agreement.

The players cannot have the owners feel like they won and feel empowered. Owners won’t openly collude, but even short of collusion, tell a bunch of extremely wealthy people that they won a deal and you’ll see some ego at work. These are, after all, human beings, and competitive ones to boot. But they are humans that are in tiny bubbles too, where only a comparative handful of people really know that world and there isn’t a broader context to compare their troubles with. But even if the fans are at a loss, the owners and players know what they’d like as an outcome, and what would make them angry.


SO WHADDYA WANT?

Factually, the players are concerned on the surface that the best years of their careers are payable by math problem rather than individual worth, with owners determining when they debut and then being able to keep them in the math problems through their prime. They’re maybe concerned that teams are rebuilding rather than competing…maybe. After all, while those teams aren’t spending big money in free agency, they are employing players that are younger and maybe on the fringes. But by and large the players are focused on making free agency better. What that means personally to each player is vastly different amongst their ranks.

Garrett Crochet was never in the minors, so he may have no personal stake in what happens in the minors, and little personal thought about manipulating service time. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant can be still sore at the Cubs for messing with his service time, but his desire to see the qualifying offer and draft pick attached to it might be a personal shrug since he wasn’t eligible to receive the QO in his first big free agency run. Marcus Semien was definitely getting a contract this offseason, so his personal concern over the qualifying offer is likely less than Dallas Keuchel, who had draft pick compensation derail his 2019. At the end of the day, the methodology of what reforms free agency isn’t as important as the outcome: players want control over their own destiny. They want more control. And while players “getting control” might mean something different to different guys, the players will stand together on something if it irritates the owners. Then they can all agree it must be good.

The owners, for their part, are care often painted as concerned about salaries rising and/or competitive balance and the like, but that’s not really a fight with the players. For as much as some owners want salaries to stay capped or at at a certain level, there are owners that spend freely and would lose their competitive advantage in a salary cap system. All the owners aren’t necessarily fighting the players on salary so much as they are infighting over it. For the owners, like the players, it is about control. But they can’t say “we want to control other human beings” in quite so many words, so they find other things to submit for public consumption. For the owners control has a fairly universal definition. They want to control all the revenue, they want to control the rights, they want to be able to run their business how they see fit without interference. The players don’t always get in the way of that, but the owners have better control over their business when they can project their costs out over a few years. Since the owners can’t just can’t publicly admit that free agents are like a pie that they can’t stop eating, they make it a fight with the players and create a system where the players lack of control helps the owners keep control.

And some owners and certainly players are more grounded in reality and smarter than others. But the CBA negotiations are mob actions. Not “horse head in the sheets” mob action, but group think. That’s where the victory perception becomes important, because if both sides are truly happy with it, they’ll become suspicious as to why the other side is celebrating. But misery loves company, and if both sides are mad, they’ll both at least think they got a good shot in somewhere.


OWNERS GONNA OWNER

The owners generally know where they want things to go with the players: shut up and take my money (as said by Phillip J. Fry). They want a 40-man roster with some predetermined salary slots; so many in this range, so many at that range, so many at the top. Sure, a guy like Jerry Reinsdorf who keeps former players around frequently or far too frequently at times (ask a Bulls fan about John Paxson) might be offended at the broad brush here. But across the mob mindset of the owners, that’s what they are speaking about; predictability. That’s why they are standing their ground on service time and free agency, or looking for more playoff teams and a draft lottery. If they can plan around a certain payroll, if they can target certain players or profiles, and if they know that they can sneak a playoff team in or get a marketable star without needing to tank (a possible PR and box-office nightmare) or spend stupid cash that the team won’t recoup, that’s predictability in an otherwise unpredictable business.

Jerry Reinsdorf has long been one of the main voices in the owner’s room. He is a business man as much as anything, and Sox fans need little reminding of how bottom-line conscious the White Sox come across. Jerry, a real estate guy who made money conservatively building assets stands in contrast to Mets owner and hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, who made money in the constant gamble that is the stock market. Cohen didn’t blink at throwing the highest AAV in MLB history at 37-year-old Max Scherzer or even throwing money at one-half season wonder James McCann. Reinsdorf is notorious for not wanting to commit to pitchers for more than 3 years and keeping fairly conservative with investments in individual players. He’s also tied with John Middleton as the longest-tenured owner in the MLB. Cohen and other owners past and present have spent like they were playing fantasy baseball; the investment in the player having diminished returns is a tomorrow problem. That disparity calls for some systematic control because if each team could operate without having to consider the other 29 involved, they certainly would. Unfortunately for the owners, they need to operate in many ways as one unit, so they rally around the things that a.) improve their collective chances of winning financially; b.) improve their individual chances of winning on the field, which helps them win financially; and c.) keeps the rabble (MLBPA) at bay. The 30 owners/ownership groups are really more than 30 actual humans…but they all understand that they are in it for fortune and glory, as Indiana Jones once said. Again, that sentiment is far older than the 80’s. While the owners rally around the idea that the players should be grateful to make anything to play the game, and are assets to be counted as much as trusted employees, the players bristle at the idea that their worth is a numbers game. The owners know this.


PLAYERS GONNA…WELL..

Players are on a team, of course, but financially measured as individuals. Carlos Rodon went from non-tendered after 2020 to looking at a multi-year deal somewhere around Kevin Gausman/Robbie Ray money in the span of 20+ starts. The White Sox not winning in the playoffs won’t impact him financially, neither will being on back-to-back playoff teams. His stats and age will be much bigger factors. So a player, who toils his whole life to make the majors and hopefully be a star bristles at the idea that his worth is measured by a system rather than on his merits. Like anyone who works for someone, that player wants to be recognized as important to the team, even if he’s not an all-star. So the players will want assurances that they get free agency faster, giving them more control over their destiny as they are measured by teams as an individual. Players get into the mob think that owners should just be ready to write the checks and that they’ll prove that they are stars and worth top dollar instead of an amalgamation dollars based on relative stats. But free agency gives owners less predictability as the market gets flooded with younger talent that wants more money. And when those young players know that they have potential as well as history, it is harder for owners to stay their own course the way they can with a 32-year-old that had a good run but seems diminished.

Just looking at the free agents that signed before the lockout, Marcus Semien and Corey Seager are both Rangers. Semien signed for 7 years and and $25 million per, while Seager got 10 years and $32.5 million per. A notable difference? Seager is only 27 years old, Semien is 31. They can both be Rangers as they approach 40, but Seager has “potential” still, for whatever that’s worth ($8.5 million?). Meanwhile, in arbitration, Seager got $13.75 million. Nothing to sneeze at, but the difference between the two years is staggering for a guy who had pretty identical stats in 2020 and 2021. So they know the owners bristle at the idea of not being able to project their costs for as long, or maybe facing a crazy panic buy like this year. But the players see their own path to control, and don’t really need to care about the owners as long as they have cash.

So even in the negotiations, knowing that teams won’t fully rebuild if there’s a draft lottery, the players as a group might still bristle at the idea that teams will be employing more veterans because they’ll bring up rookies much slower. But as a player knows individually that something which could help him, for example an increased chance at the playoffs and a chance to turn postseason glory into more money, he might view that as the win to give the owners who would stand to make more money off the backs of the players.


DETAILS, SCHMETAILS

Do the players really care if more owners get added playoff revenue without more salary? No. Do owners really care about 29.5 years old versus 31.5 years old versus so many days from first call up as a free agency trigger? Not particularly. These are merely details. They will be stated to be important details, as the devil lies therein, and they will be the subject of walking away from the table and tweets and releases to the press and what not. The CBA will be signed when the players feel like they got more control and the owners feel like they got more control. The only way to know that you have control is for the other side to be angry at losing their control. The art is finding something to pretend you’re mad about to get the thing that the other side is pretending to be mad about. And the dirty little secret? As long as the money keeps flowing in, everyone is basically happy. And sure, the sides can’t expect the other to make things worse for themselves compared to the dead CBA, and there’s been some of that posturing that won’t help, But in the end, whatever the details shake out to be, the players will go back to worrying about their launch angle or getting more spin on a slider because they need the whiff rate or the bombs to keep getting contracts. The owners will go back to passive-aggressively side-eyeing the owners that don’t do it the way the do it and telling their GMs to “make it enough” (as stated by Smokey’s mom in “Friday”). So the owners will eventually pretend to be mad that they can still easily predict when a player hits free agency and control their resources accordingly, while the players will pretend to be mad that that their money will come by convoluted math (which at times they know is more than on the open market). The game will take the new CBA and adopt new rules and evolve as it has for more than a century. And come that time when hope springs eternal and pitchers and catchers report, there will still be fans mad at the millionaires on both sides who will still contribute to the MLB financial pie. “Mmmm. Pie.” – Homer J. Simpson.


Featured photo and recipe can be found here! It makes sense if you read the second paragraph.


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