What umps' new contract means

On the new agreement between MLB and the umpires, straight from the horse's mouth:

    As part of the agreement, Commissioner Bud Selig will have more flexibility to dictate expansion of the instant replay system and umpires will now be able to work in successive World Series. There was also a 2-percent pay raise across the board and buyouts that will allow veteran umpires the ability to retire early.

    Under the old agreement, the six umpires who called a particular World Series would not be able to do so again for two years, although they were available to work the Division Series and the League Championship Series the next postseason. That flexibility alone will allow baseball to use its best umpires throughout the playoffs on a rotating basis, although umpires still won't be able to work successive series in a given postseason.

    As far as replay is concerned, it now covers boundary calls on home runs -- fair or foul, in or out. That issue was negotiated with umpires outside of regular collective bargaining in 2008 and the program was put in place in August of that year.

    Selig said recently that he would consider expanding replay after a spate of missed calls plagued the first two rounds of last year's postseason. The expansion of replay is now a matter before Selig's 14-man Special Committee, which met this past Thursday and is expected to convene again during the next few weeks.

There are three obvious ways to improve the umpire, and this agreement would seem to address two of them.

One way is to have the best umpires on the field during the most important games. The new agreement manifestly improves Major League Baseball's ability to do this.

Another way is to increase the use of video review. There's nothing here that mandates more video review, but at least if MLB decides to take that step, it won't have to worry about negotiating with the umpires; that step might not be the first step, but it's a necessary step and now it's done.

The third way is to drop some of the dead weight, and there's still no obvious mechanism for doing that.

Or is there? There's that single half-sentence ...

and buyouts that will allow veteran umpires the ability to retire early.

That strikes me as very carefully worded: allow and the ability.

But what if it means, just as much, something like this:

and buyouts for older umpires whom MLB determines aren't still working with great skill.

Every season, there are probably more than a dozen older umpires blowing easy while, at the same time, just as many highly skilled umpires are working for peanuts in Triple-A. Frankly, it's as if Chris Coghlan had to spend 2009 in the minors because Luis Gonzalez decided he wanted to play another season for the Marlins.

The Players Association wields great power, but its members don't yet have the ability to play as long as they like. Umpires, for the most part, do.

The new agreement probably doesn't change that. But if a hefty buyout is what it takes to convince an old umpire with failing eyesight and reflexes to retire ... well, Major League Baseball is going to pull in something like $10 billion this year. Seems like a small price to pay.