MLBPA executive director Tony Clark tamps down talk on player division, lauds union gains in new CBA

With the Major League Baseball Players Association split between team representatives and its executive subcommittee members in the vote that ended the league's 99-day lockout, some wondered about a stark division within union leadership.

But Tony Clark, in his ninth year as MLBPA executive director, disagreed with that characterization, saying the vote demonstrated "healthy dialogue and conversation" and praising the gains the union made through the drawn-out negotiations.

"At the end of the day, each player, player reps, the teams that they represent, the executive subcommittee, all had a common goal in improving the system," Clark said Friday morning from MLBPA headquarters in New York. "And so the conversations that were had, the tough conversations that were had, afforded any number of players -- beyond the executive subcommittee and beyond the player reps themselves, and the young players themselves -- to appreciate that the commitment to improve the system was front and center for every player that voted and every player that weighed in."

All eight members of the executive subcommittee voted against MLB's final proposal, but 26 of the 30 team representatives were in favor, leading to the end of the league-imposed lockout Thursday and completion of a new collective bargaining agreement.

On Friday, Clark and lead negotiator Bruce Meyer expressed satisfaction over gains in the minimum salary (from $575,500 in 2021 to $700,000 in 2022) and competitive balance tax threshold (from $210 million in 2021 to $230 million in 2022), as well as the introduction of a $50 million pool for players who are not arbitration-eligible, a five-option limit per season and the addition of the designated hitter to the National League.

The new CBA, which extends through the 2026 season, also includes provisions designed to curb tanking and service-time manipulation, two of the union's foremost goals in negotiations. MLB will go to a six-team draft lottery in hopes of preventing teams from fielding inferior rosters in a race for the top picks and will reward players a full year of service time if they finish in the top two in Rookie of the Year voting, regardless of when they were promoted.

The question is: Will that be enough to significantly incentivize competition?

"All of this is a process over time," said Meyer, hired as the union's chief negotiator in August 2018. "Obviously we wanted more dramatic changes to address those issues. The league resisted us on that. We don't expect that that problem is going to be completely eliminated, but we're hopeful that's going to be significantly better than it is now."

The CBA was ratified at around 6 p.m. ET Thursday, lifting the lockout and opening the trade and free-agent markets about an hour later. Players are required to report to their respective spring training facilities by Sunday, and Opening Day will take place April 7, a week later than originally scheduled. A full 162-game season will be played, followed by a 12-team postseason.

The expanded playoffs stood among the major gains by the league and its 30 owners, along with a shorter window to implement rule changes and ability to place advertisements on uniforms.

Clark said the union entered the negotiations seeking a "fair and equitable deal" and credited the players' engagement in ultimately securing one. Meyer described the process as "a long, hard labor fight against a powerful adversary committed to maintaining the status quo or making it worse for players," noting the league's desire to keep CBT thresholds flat while drastically increasing the penalties for exceeding them.

"As in any deal, there were some tradeoffs, and we always knew change would be incremental over time," Meyer said. "But players can be proud of what they accomplished here, and it sets up well to build on and continue to make gains in the future."

Tension between the owners and players dates back to the ratification of the previous CBA in 2016, which paved the way for an era rife with tanking, service-time manipulation and cost efficiency that prompted player salaries to decrease at a time of booming league revenues. The bitterness escalated when the sides failed to come to a mutual agreement over the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season and boiled over during CBA negotiations.

The union -- looking to incentivize competition, put more money in the pockets of young players, diminish caps on big-market spending and revitalize the middle class of free agency -- initially sought structural changes such as earlier free agency, automatic arbitration after two years and cuts in revenue sharing. Their first core-economics proposal came in May, and the league didn't counter until August.

Manfred instituted a lockout Dec. 2, stating hopes that it would trigger accelerated bargaining, but the two sides went 43 days without talking.

Eight days of negotiations in Jupiter, Florida -- talks that saw the union relent on requests around free agency, arbitration eligibility and revenue sharing -- ended with Manfred postponing Opening Day on March 1.

The league had imposed another deadline for Tuesday, this time threatening the full 162-game season, and agreed to higher CBT thresholds, seemingly carving a path for a deal. But the international draft, an unpopular mechanism for Latin American players who prefer a free market, emerged as a divisive issue that took two days to navigate.

The union has until July 25 to decide whether to agree on a 20-round, hard-slot international draft for amateur players outside the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico starting as early as 2024.

"Players have heard me say this, and I have no problem repeating it publicly: I'm not a fan of drafts in general," Clark said. "Having said that, as a part of this agreement, we agreed to have a conversation about the possibility of an international draft. And to the extent that there's a high level of integrity and a commitment to negotiate over the parameters, then we'll have a good conversation about that. But there's no one rushing to put further restrictions on players, whether domestic or international."