The MLBPA Wanted Pre-Arb Players Paid More (And They Will Be)


Image credit: Syndication: Palm Beach Daily News

The Players Association had a number of goals heading into the collective bargaining that would bring about the new 2022-2026 agreement, but one of the most significant ones—one they spent a considerable amount of time hyping up—was their desire to pay younger and less experienced players more. There was a severe imbalance in player compensation in the previous CBA: as Travis Sawchik pointed out near the start of the lockout, 54 percent of all service time was accrued by players making less than 10 percent of collective player pay. 

So, now that there’s a deal in place, how did they do in regards to achieving this goal? Let’s break down all the various components that have the intention of improving the pay of younger players and those with less service time behind them, and see what there is to see.

First thing: the PA failed to shorten the path to arbitration-eligibility, which is no small thing. They began by proposing that it would take just two years to reach arbitration, as was the case prior to the CBA agreed to in 1985, but the league rejected such a change, as well as compromise follow-up proposals that would have created a larger population of Super Two players—those who end up with four years of arb eligibility instead of the standard three. The PA pulled all such proposals off the table well before a deal was settled. Changing arb eligibility was always a long shot, in the sense that there was no way MLB was going to just let a thing like this happen, but not getting any kind of improvement in this area is a disappointing result, regardless of the circumstances. 

That being said, it’s not as if the PA failed to make any kind of progress for pre-arb players. Two of their most significant wins are focused there: a higher minimum salary, and the introduction of a pre-arbitration pool. It’s fair to say that the new league minimum is disappointing, at least in comparison to what the union was proposing earlier on in negotiations: what was once a $775,000 salary for 2022 that would climb to $875,000 by 2026 is instead going from $700,000 to $780,000 over the next five seasons. On the other hand, 2021’s league minimum was just $570,500, and began at $535,000 in 2017, which was only up $27,500 from 2015 and 2016, when the minimum repeated itself. An $80,000 jump over five years after an instantaneous $129,500 increase—the largest single-year increase they’ve ever negotiated, and the second-largest as measured by percentage increase—is significantly better than the previous arrangement, which was two scheduled increases and then two cost-of-living adjustments that didn’t do all that much adjusting. 

It’s certainly fair to make complaints about how the league-minimum increase didn’t do much more than make an adjustment for inflation relative to the previous deal, but look at what had been accomplished in the previous two CBAs in this area. This is progress, even if it comes with a side of depressing, but more of the problem rests with the old arrangements leaving the present in a poor starting position.

The major-league minimum is also not the whole story. There are three different minimum salaries that the PA negotiates in a CBA: for Major League Article VI(A)(1) players, Minor League Article VI(A)(2) players, and Minor League Article VI(A)(3) players. In less lawyerly language, there are different minimums for big-league players, minor-league players with major-league service time who are no longer on their original contract, and 40-man roster players who are in the minors. The minimums for these latter groups also received a meaningful bump, relative to previous levels. The middle group saw their salary rise to $117,400 in 2022, and up to $127,100 by 2026: in 2020, they were paid $90,400 plus a cost of living adjustment, with another adjustment for 2021. The 40-man players who are in the minors got the larger percentage increase, as their 2020 salary was $45,300 plus a cost of living adjustment, and then another adjustment for 2021. Now, they are set to make $58,800 in 2022, and $63,600 in 2026. That number might not seem huge, but percentage-wise, that’s a significant change. 

Consider, too, how many 40-man players are in the minors. Big-league rosters only have 26 spots, and plenty of 40-man players aren’t also guys who already completed their first contract. This is a huge pay increase for a population of what, around 400 players per year? That’s one-third of the entire union membership. 

I’m on the record as saying the PA probably should have been asking for more than they did when it came to a new league-minimum salary, but they avoided the many poison pills MLB tried to slip them in this area, and made a massive stride for the most vulnerable members in the whole union while digging the big leaguers out of at least part of the hole they found themselves in. That’s not nothing.

And then there is the pre-arbitration pool. The $50 million pool isn’t what the PA necessarily envisioned when they first proposed it, back when $115 million would be split among the top 30 pre-arb players in a given year, but what they did get has some positives and negatives compared to the original. The part that’s better is that it includes far more players: it will now pay bonuses to 100 qualifying players instead of 30. That group will be composed of any major award winners among the pre-arb players, as well as runners-up. Jayson Stark tweeted out the full details:

Stark also reported that there wouldn’t be any double dipping: if an MVP finisher also qualifies under Rookie of the Year voting, they’d get the higher amount. Not all of the MVP winners or second-place finishers and what have you are going to be pre-arb players, either, so the exact amounts headed to those on the WAR variant to-be-determined list isn’t set in stone. The fact that there are 100 players splitting $50 million is a positive, though, in the sense that it’s 100 players per year getting significantly more money than they would have otherwise, and that’s on top of a much better league-minimum salary arrangement than has existed for some time.

The less praise-worthy bit (besides involving BBWAA members in player compensation, which I am not in favor of even as someone who is not part of the BBWAA) is that $50 million is all the union could get out of MLB on this. The league climbing from $10 million to $50 million while the PA dropped from $115 million to $50 million is a problem on its own, but throw in that the union also sacrificed annual increases to the bonus pool, and you’ve got me throwing up my hands in frustration. I am aware that all of bargaining is a give and take, that things end up tied together or balanced more here than there, but there is already a significant problem in the CBA with the luxury tax threshold and minimum salary not increasing at a rate that reflects revenue growth in the game. Creating yet another negotiated, precedent-based arena to have to fight in each time out, one that will move further and further away from the realities of revenue growth as it sits there stagnating for five years, is something that should be criticized. 

Maybe they’ll make sure to fix that in 2027, however. The PA was never going to get everything at once here, and, as said, the fact a bonus pool exists at all is a win. Now that it exists, maybe it can be done closer to right the next time. And again, it’s not like they got nothing overall: the total compensation for pre-arbitration players, between the increases to the minimum and bonuses, will increase by more than $100 million from 2021 to 2022. 

One item that didn’t receive significant attention during bargaining, since it’s less of a headline generator, is options. There are now limits to have many times in a season a player can be optioned, and it’s five. That might still sound like a lot of options, but consider this: the Rays optioned Louis Head 12 times in 2021. The option system is abused, and it messes with player pay. Head, for instance, was a rookie in 2021. While in the majors, his paychecks were in line with what a player with a $570,500 salary would receive. Except, he wasn’t in the majors all that often: he was used for a few days in April before he was sent back down, was optioned three times in May, had just the one big-league game in late-June before being optioned back down again, and even ended up optioned in September despite the rosters expanding to 28. Whenever Head was in the minors—which was often—he was earning paychecks that reflected someone making a salary about $525,000 less than in the majors. And it was solely so the Rays could cycle through cheap relief arms: it’s all the same money to Tampa, really, but it’s certainly not the same for the relievers in question, and it sticks out even more when said reliever has a quality season like Head did.

That practice won’t vanish, no, but it will be limited, and at least the pay for these 40-man players in the minors will be notably higher now, too.

The PA was never going to fix everything all at once, no, but at least when it came to making sure younger players would be paid more going forward, they seem to have accomplished their goal. Yes, there remains work to be done: another massive jump in the minimum will be necessary in the next CBA, to keep it from falling as far behind revenues and inflation as it had coming into 2022, and the pre-arb pool will need those annual increases or a huge jump that manages a similar effect next time around, too. Still, the gains to the minimum (especially for 40-man minor-league players), creating a maximum number of options in a given year, and the existence of the new pre-arb pool are all wins for the PA, and they managed to pull this off without creating any obvious, exploitable loopholes in these areas going forward, either.

Marc Normandin currently writes on baseball’s labor issues and more at marcnormandin.com, which you can read for free but support through his Patreon. His baseball writing has appeared at SB Nation, Defector, Deadspin, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, Sports on Earth, The Guardian, The Nation, FAIR, and TalkPoverty, and you can read his takes on retro video games at Retro XP.

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