Tony Clark says new CBA 'does not change' union's view of salary caps

ByJayson Stark ESPN logo
Saturday, December 3, 2016

Tony Clark heads a union that has spent its entire history opposing salary caps, but he told on Friday that he doesn't believe baseball's players' union abandoned that principle when it agreed to a hard cap on international signings in the sport's new collective bargaining agreement.

"This does not change the philosophy of this organization as it relates to caps," Clark, the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association said Friday during a wide-ranging interview on the day the new labor deal was announced.

So how did baseball emerge from these negotiations with a system in which all 30 teams will work with a strict total signing pool of about $5 million a year per club, a pool that teams are not permitted to exceed for any reason? It turns out that the disparity between the dollars being spent on foreign-born players versus American-born amateur players had a lot to do with it.

Just five months ago, a 17-year-old Cuban pitcher, Adrian Morejon, signed a contract with the San Diego Padres that guaranteed him $11 million. Meanwhile, less than two weeks earlier, the top pick in the June draft of American players, 18-year-old outfielder Mickey Moniak, signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for a little more than half that amount, at $6.1 million.

The year before, the Boston Red Sox handed out a $31.5 million signing bonus to 19-year-old Cuban infielder Yoan Moncada. To put that in perspective, under the new rules, the international signing pools for an entire division won't add up to $31.5 million.

"It is unlikely that a signing that high will happen again," Clark said, pausing before adding, "Nor can it happen on the domestic side. Nor has it happened on the domestic side."

Clark said the union found itself in a difficult position as negotiators for the owners pressed for an international draft. Players involved in the negotiations were staunchly opposed to an international draft. So the union was faced with "challenges" in trying to settle for an alternative system that worked for both sides and for countries around the world.

Those challenges took into account geography, history, culture, politics and the disparity between the dollars that foreign-born players were signing for as opposed to those of amateur American-born players, he said. So the players wound up settling on a system they believed balanced as many of those factors as possible.

"We spent a lot of time with players going through this one," Clark said. "And where we landed, we believe, protects all of those pieces."

Clark discussed a number of other issues raised by the labor agreement that was agreed to Wednesday night. Among those issues:

  • Draft-pick compensation: Although teams will no longer have to surrender a first-round draft pick if they sign a premium free agent who has rejected a qualifying offer, clubs signing those players still will lose at least one pick in the later rounds. Asked about reports that the owners offered to completely eliminate qualifying offers and draft-pick compensation, Clark said a proposal was made to do that, but the tradeoff that owners asked for in return "was not a place we were willing to go."
  • The luxury tax: Clark disagreed with agents who have criticized the Competitive Balance Tax (aka luxury tax) in the new agreement as the equivalent of "a soft salary cap." In addition to the maximum 50 percent tax rate, which had already been levied on teams that exceed the tax threshold multiple times, this agreement adds an extra "surtax" as high as 45 percent on clubs that go over by more than $40 million. Agents also have said they believe the thresholds should have been higher, given the explosion of revenues in baseball over the past five years. However, Clark defended the new thresholds, saying they not only increase by larger margins than they did in the last labor deal, but they also go up annually, as opposed to one increase over the life of the previous agreement. "The [tax] was put in place," he said, "and was supposed to act as a drag on the highest end of the payroll structure. That's what it was put in place to do. That's what it is still designed to do."
  • Unhappy agents: Asked about complaints by agents that they didn't feel included in the negotiating process, Clark said at first: "I don't know who they are." He then maintained the union "connected with a number of agents all along the bargaining cycle." He conceded "there may be some who weren't as much a part of the process as others, but the truth is, we spent a lot of time communicating with a number of those in the agent community, in an effort to appreciate the issues in a number of areas and applying that input to decisions that we looked to make."
  • Roster size: Despite widespread reports that roster size would increase from 25 players per team to 26, along with reductions in the 40-man September rosters, Clark said so much time was needed to resolve the major economic issues that roster size "had to be put on the back burner." However, the two sides have the freedom to address this point at a later date, and "I anticipate continuing to have that dialogue moving forward," he said.
  • Pace of play: Surprisingly, Clark said the two sides never discussed during the labor talks pitch clocks or other changes to speed up the pace of play. But that issue can also be negotiated in a different time and place, "and I anticipate there being dialogue" in the coming months.
  • The schedule: The sides also never talked about shortening the season from 162 games, but they did agree to add four extra off days, to institute rules requiring earlier start times on getaway days for teams with long flights and to have all teams hire a chef and registered dietitian to improve clubhouse nutrition. These were a top priority for players in the negotiations. And Clark described those changes as "important for players and important to the game."
  • Negotiating amid outside noise: In his first go-round as the union's lead negotiator, Clark said he was aware of noise, criticism and stories suggesting that if negotiations ended in a lockout, it was a result of the union's slow pace. So "you know that it's always there," he said. "You know there are always going to be concerns and misunderstandings and misrepresentations, and positions taken that may be different than the ones that are professed to be taken, at any one time along the process. And that's why you focus in on what you can control. ... But as long as you maintain a high level of integrity with respect to the foundational pieces, you're able to navigate those challenges -- and eventually land in a place that is a focus from start to finish, which is a fair and equitable deal."