Why the MLBPA’s grievance against the Pirates misses the point

Two years ago, the Major League Baseball Players’ Association filed a grievance against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Miami Marlins, Oakland Athletics, and Tampa Bay Rays, arising out of those teams’ spending – or lack thereof. Specifically, the union accused those four teams of misusing revenue sharing funds that were supposed to be directed towards improving the product on the field. The CBA is explicit in that regard.

[E]ach Club shall use its revenue sharing receipts (including any distributions from the Commissioner’s Discretionary Fund) in an effort to improve its performance on the field. The following uses of revenue sharing receipts are not consistent with a Club’s obligation . . . to improve its performance on the field: payments to service acquisition debt or any other debt that is unrelated to past or future efforts to improve performance on the field; payments to individuals other than on-field personnel or personnel related to player development; payments to entities that do not have a direct role in improving on-field performance; and distributions to ownership that are not intended to offset tax obligations resulting from Club operations.

Now, the union has filed another grievance against the Pirates, alleging essentially the same violations. The problem is that as the labor unrest in baseball grows, the union is arguably targeting the wrong problem. As I wrote back in 2018, revenue sharing grievances are difficult to prove and win. We’ve already seen this year an arbitrator rule that teams aren’t required to act in good faith towards players; that’s not a good sign for this latest action by the union.

What’s more worrisome is that these revenue sharing grievances are distracting the MLBPA from arguably more concerning actions by teams – actions which aren’t even being considered as the CBA violations they almost certainly are.

Cardinals ace Jack Flaherty is a great pitcher. Last year, despite the happy bouncy ball, Flaherty was seventh in the Major Leagues in ERA- (65), and 11th in K% (29.9%), tied with Stephen Strasburg. Perhaps most impressively, Flaherty was third in WHIP (0.97), showing an uncanny ability to limit base runners. In other words, Flaherty was very good. Good pitcher is good, news at 11.

Yes, elite pitching is risky, as Luis Severino can attest, but it’s also incredibly scarce – which is why Strasburg just received better than $200 million for what amounts to the same skillset as Flaherty. So ordinarily, Flaherty would be the kind of young (24) franchise cornerstone with whom a team would want to cultivate goodwill, in the hopes of keeping him around for a good long while. Instead, the team opted to go a different way (emphasis mine):

The Cardinals have renewed the contract of right-hander Jack Flaherty for the 2020 season, as per a team announcement. Flaherty was the only one of 25 pre-arbitration players on the Cards’ roster who didn’t agree to terms on a contract for the coming season, and thus the team will impose Flaherty’s salary for 2020.

That number will work out to $604.5K, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The Cardinals’ internal formula for calcuating pre-arb raises based on merit awarded Flaherty some extra money beyond the $563.5K minimum salary for his outstanding numbers in 2019, including a special $10K bonus for his fourth-place finish in NL Cy Young Award voting. However, that $10K was canceled out by a $10K penalty that the Cardinals impose on any pre-arbitration player who doesn’t come to an agreement.

This is the second consecutive season that Flaherty has had his contract renewed rather than come to an agreement, which the righty told reporters was a matter of “principle.” As a reminder, whether or not a player agrees to his pre-arb salary or gets his contract renewed, it doesn’t have any bearing on his roster status.

Flaherty was worth 4.7 fWAR in 2019 and was paid less than $600,000. Nevertheless, the Cardinals are essentially fining Flaherty $10,000 – a not insignificant amount of money – for exercising his right to agree to a salary that is less than a tenth of what he’s really worth. Although the Cardinals had a right to renew and set Flaherty’s salary, that obligation isn’t reciprocal; that is to say, Flaherty has to accept the salary, but not agree to it. In fact, nothing in the Collective Bargaining Agreement requires a player to sign a pre-arbitration contract renewing his salary.

What the Cardinals are doing, therefore, is punishing Flaherty for exercising a right he has under the CBA – and that is a very dangerous precedent indeed. Penalizing players for taking an action protected by the CBA should be an implicit violation of the CBA, by definition.

The worst part is that none of the media outlets to cover this fine imposed by the Cardinals – for that is, in effect, what it is – noted the very real chilling effect it has on player protest rights. None noted that it is a probable CBA violation. The union itself issued no public response. The Pirates’ spending may be the bigger headline, but penalizing marquee players who object to being paid less than they deserve in violation of the CBA is arguably the more important fight, and right now the union isn’t willing to have that fight.

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