You Have Got to Be Kidding Me
Lucy always seems so sincere. She looks at me with those eye dots of hers and she promises that this time will be different, insists that she has left childish pranks behind or she recites a bible verse or she will shake my hand with good-faith firmness or she will regale me with mathematical odds that leave me certain that this is the time.
This time for sure.
Yes, this time for sure.
One more time, I didn’t see it coming. I was assured by several Lucys on both sides of the aisle that a baseball deal was going to be struck on Wednesday. Obviously. There just didn’t seem anything worth fighting for anymore. The money was close enough, and this whole stupid thing was always about money. Sure, there would be a few sticking points, there always are, a small gap in the offers, a few differences on baseball’s direction, but surely nothing that anybody would be willing to miss games over. The deal was done. Baseball would come back. Spring would finally spring.
And then …
I will try to explain here why the owners and, yes, the players kicked us all in the teeth one more time, and how maybe all is not quite lost (look, Lucy is holding the football again! This time she’s giving her BONDED WORD. Surely, Lucy would not break her BONDED WORD). But before I do that, I want to say something about the players because Wednesday’s fiasco was every bit as much about them as it was the owners.
We here at JoeBlogs have been adamant — as most analysts have been adamant — that this inane and maddening lockout is happening almost exclusively because of the owners.
That opinion remains unchanged. The owners locked out the players back in December, you might remember, so they could “jumpstart negotiations.” And then they waited almost two months before even making an offer or meeting with the players. They tried to double-down on the luxury tax/salary cap that they got out of the players in 2016. They refused to make any serious offers to resolve problems they openly admit are bad for the game, such as service-time manipulation and drastically underpaying young players. They tried to bully the players into making a bad deal by inventing counterfeit deadlines, and then they just began canceling games, trying all along to say to the players, like movie bad guys, “You did this to yourselves!”
It has been a master class in bad-faith negotiating.
And so it has been easy for some of us to miss that the players have not exactly covered themselves in glory. On Wednesday, the holdup turned out to be an international draft. The owners want one and as such tied it to something the players crave, the removal of the qualifying offer for free agents.
To explain that: As of right now, teams are entitled to make their free agents a qualifying offer — which is basically a deal set at the average of the top 125 players — and if the player declines the offer, the team will get a draft pick if the player signs with another team.
The players are all for removing the qualifying offer, they have wanted that for years. But they do not want an international draft … or at least they might not … or at least they want to think about it.
Now, baseball’s international market is a very, very complicated issue, one that others have a much better handle on than I do. What I do know is that the current system is deeply corrupt — “gross” in the words of one baseball executive — and that it manipulates kids as young as 12 years old, pushes many of them to take PEDs as they try to impress the right people and incorporates handshake deals that are so shady and revolting that one general manager was literally banned for life over them.
There’s also a hard cap on how much teams can spend, one of the many curious things the players agreed to back in 2016. As one person told me, the logic of the players accepting a cap without a draft is baffling, at best.
That is not to say that an international draft is the answer — there are numerous reasons why it is not, and it is telling that players from the Dominican Republic have come out strongly against it. Fernando Tatis Jr. says it would kill what baseball is in the Caribbean. David Ortiz reportedly encouraged young Dominican players to fight hard against the draft (though publicly he has been less extreme, saying only that change should be carefully considered and time should be taken).
But nobody denies that the current system is corrupt and unsustainable. It is a question desperately in search of an answer.
And instead of treating that question with the seriousness that it deserves, the owners and players decided instead to use an international draft as a polo mallet to conk each other in the head with while questioning their integrity.
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The owners insist that they have brought up the draft throughout the negotiations — they have put together a draft proposal that, like it or not, clearly took a lot of work and thought — and were led to believe that the players would accept one in exchange for getting rid of draft-pick compensation for free agents.
The players insist that they had always been flatly and immovably against an international draft and that the owners already agreed to eliminate the qualifying offer with no strings attached* and that throwing this draft in at the last minute is a blatant attempt to jam a bad deal down their throats.
*Sure, this sounds like the owners.
The Twitterati — at least the ones I follow on Twitter — mostly seemed to side with the players on this, which I get. The owners have done nothing to inspire confidence in their integrity, and so when Max Scherzer sends out a pleading tweet like this one, you take notice.
Fans, please hang in there with us.
It’s a really weird phrase.
Do I think the owners are up to no good? Undoubtedly. Here’s my problem, though: The owners have been working on this international draft concept for almost a year. And up to now, the players, at least publicly, had shown little-to-no public resistance to it. Maybe behind the scenes they were fighting like mad against it, I don’t know. But nothing about the way the players have negotiated suggests that the international draft was something they cared much about.
And that, inevitably, leads to this: Have you looked at the players negotiating this CBA? You probably have heard that five of them are Scott Boras clients, but have you looked at the list?
The eight players are:
Now, I’m sorry, you look at that list of players and tell me what you see? Is there a Dominican player on that list? No. A Venezuelan player? No. Is there a player who was actually signed out of the international market? No. Is there a young player who is pre-arbitration and being underpaid? No. Is there a player who is in danger of leaving the game without getting his fair share?
Those eight players have made $653 million and are guaranteed to make $861 million more.
Eight players worth more than $1.4 billion in salary. That’s who the MLBPA sends to negotiate with the owners.
And now I want you to tell me what the Players Association’s priorities are. At the very least, it’s terrible optics. But it’s probably more than just optics. People have estimated that getting rid of the qualifying offer could pump another $100 million into baseball’s free agency market, with almost all of that money going to high-end players. And on the other end of the negotiating table are eight players, five of them high first-round draft picks, all of them players who signed big, multi-year free agency deals.
Now, again, you tell me:
Do you believe the owners just offered to get rid of the qualifying offer for nothing, just out of the goodness of their hearts?
Do you believe these players would walk away from a $100 million boost to free agency in order to protect the current unscrupulous international market system and international amateur players who are not in the union and, mostly, never will be?*
*Why aren’t the players fighting AT ALL for minor leaguers?
I find both of those just a little bit far-fetched. Obviously, I don’t know, but if I’m guessing, I would guess that the players, at the very least, let the owners believe that an international draft was in play, and then when David Ortiz led a mini-revolt and some players went public, they panicked and screamed foul play.
Here’s the final reason I tend to believe this — just as things were falling apart on Wednesday, they made a last-gasp offer to the owners. In this one, the players proposed that if the owners get rid of draft-pick compensation, they will negotiate the possibilities of an international draft until Nov. 15. If no agreement on a draft is reached, the offer goes, then the owners can bring back draft-pick compensation for the 2023 season.
And that strongly suggests to me that that the players were well aware, at least conceptually, that the qualifying offer was tied to the international draft.
Anyway, maybe that offer by the players will restart things quickly. And even though mistrust between the two sides is at a crescendo, they’re so close on this thing that maybe they’ll still be able to come to a quick deal. I’m not saying that will happen. I’m done trying to kick the football. Really. I’m done. This time for sure.