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The New CBA

Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association officially have a new five-year Collective Bargaining Agreement. The preceding one was set to expire December 11, so this deal was struck weeks before the deadline. Based on very recent history in the NFL, NBA, and even NHL a few years ago, baseball should be nominated for Nobel prizes. Major American professional sports leagues simply don't reach agreements until the 11th hour, or later...or much later.

What's even more remarkable is that the MLB reached a new deal easily despite making massive changes within the CBA. Legitimate negotiating had to take place to make this deal happen. This isn't a case where everyone got around a table, and agreed to keep the status quo. There are tons of changes with seismic implications.

Realignment

The Astros are coming to the AL West in 2013. The divisions, for the first time since leagues went from two to three divisions, will be balanced (a good thing in my book). The Astros and Rangers have a chance to develop more of a rivalry, which I also consider a good thing.

However, both leagues now have 15 teams - meaning there has to be year-round interleague play for every team to play on the same day (which typically happens four or five times a week). The AL and NL operate more and more like two large divisions of Major League Baseball, which sounds like a "duh" statement, but it isn't. The books I've been reading recently are about older baseball eras - even as far back as the 1880s right now. Baseball, for most of its history, has had a bunch of separate leagues that compete against each other. The American and National Leagues emerged as relatively superior giants to many of the leagues that still survive as part of the minor league system. For most of history, they have operated as distinct leagues, and I kind of like that. The modern games is getting away from that, and I miss it.

People say that interleague play will expand with the new agreement, and to a degree that's true. However, there don't have to be more games. Baseball's season lasts roughly 24-25 weeks, meaning teams play about 50 series. Because 15 games are played when nobody has a day off, only 1 of 15 matchups has to be interleague. So, a team only has to play 1 interleague series out of every 15. That averages out to 3 or 4 interleague series over the year. The games will be way more spread out with the balanced leagues, but there do not necessarily need to be more match-ups.

While I don't like the idea of year-long interleague play, the positives outweigh the negatives. It's a good decision to move the Astros to the AL West, and balance the divisions.

Expanded Playoffs

Each league will have an additional wild card slot, and the two wild card teams will play a one-game playoff to advance to the division series. With the changes, 10 of 30 MLB will make the playoffs every year. For comparison, 12 of 32 NFL teams make the postseason, and 16 of 30 NBA and NHL teams qualify for the playoffs.

For my taste, the NBA and NHL let in too many teams to the playoffs. The NFL feels about right. MLB could handle a few more slots, and now they have them. Moreover, the one-game playoffs will be fantastic, and not extend the playoffs into November. Two thumbs up for the playoff expansion.

No More Type A and B Free Agents

The way of ranking free agents had to change. It was odd and antiquated, and teams have valued draft picks much more highly the past couple years. Orlando Hudson had some issues getting work, thanks to his Type A free agent tag a few seasons ago. Teams valued him, but not enough to give up their first round pick.

The new system eliminates the Elias rankings, and is based purely on whether or not a team offers a pending free agent a qualifying offer equal to the average of the top 125 players in baseball. This is a brilliant solution. It will always be responsive to the free agent market in any given year. A player also has to be on a given team for the entire season to be eligible, closing a loophole where teams would trade for players really just to get the compensatory draft picks (supposedly earmarked for teams losing valuable players).

I was curious to see how the new CBA would deal with free agent compensation, because it had to change. This is a tremendous solution that guarantees compensatory picks go to teams that should legitimately receive compensation for lost players.

More Super Two Players

A subtle change that will make a big difference is the expansion of super two status. A certain number of players hit arbitration a season early, if they have accumulated a bunch more time in the majors, relative to their peers.

More players will hit arbitration early, which means more will also hit free agency a year earlier. This, combined with the new way free agent compensation works, will alter the free agent market noticeably.  Over time, there should be more players in the open market, and fewer should result in a loss of draft picks. With more supply, and similar demand, the price tags on free agents may sink a little.

Massive Draft Changes

The biggest, and most controversial, changes are in the draft. We'll start with some of the less controversial edits:
  • The signing deadline will be somewhere between July 12-18, depending on the day of the All-Star Game: If I'm interpreting this right, the deadline will be the day after the All-Star game, which makes so much sense. It's one of the deadest days on the sports calendar, so the deadline should get more coverage with this arrangement. More importantly, players cannot be traded in their first year as a professional. With a mid-July deadline, every drafted player will be eligible for deadline deals the following year, eliminating one of the bigger needs for "players to be named later" to be included in deals. Under the new agreement, guys like Drew Pomeranz and Chance Ruffin can be announced in trades immediately.
  • Prospects can only be signed to minor league deals: This is another common-sense change. It makes negotiating much simpler, as the only thing in question will be the signing bonus. Gone are the days where Dustin Ackley and Danny Hultzen get MLB deals straight out the draft - which by the way, boots somebody else off of a team's 40-man roster, in the middle of a season. This was a necessary change for the more controversial point...
  • Teams will only be allowed to spend so much on the draft: This is a change getting seriously criticized (two links), and to a degree with good reasons. Teams will only have so much money to spend on signing bonuses from now on, and the amount they can spend will be dependent on how many premium draft picks they have. In other words, teams with high picks will have more money to spend than ones in the latter half of the first round. There will be no limits on how much a team can spend on an individual player, but the sum of signing bonuses will not exceed a predetermined amount. In recent year, the top draft spenders have been low revenue teams, and that's why people are up in arms. It seems like the cap on spending hinders the only chance that low revenue teams have to compete. However, I disagree. The teams spending the most on the draft are the ones with the top picks (shocking), and they will still be the ones spending more than everybody else. I'm excited to see how this change plays out.
  • Competitive balance picks have been added: Now, instead of low-revenue teams looking for ways to beat the system to get more draft picks, they will simply get more picks based on their economic context, and how well they've performed on the field. This is another reason that I don't think the draft cap will hinder low revenue teams like many think it will. Even more interestingly, teams will be allowed to trade these picks - the first draft picks baseball teams have ever been allowed to trade. Only low revenue teams will have access to this unique resource. Depending on how many other teams covet the picks in trades, this may be an opening to all draft picks being tradeable in the next CBA.
Massive Changes to International Free Agency

For the first time ever, there are restrictions on how teams can spend their money internationally. There will be caps on how much money teams can spend acquiring young players abroad, based on their winning percentage the previous year (bad teams have more money to spend). This will hurt the Mariners the most, since they have been the most aggressive team in baseball signing international free agents.

Still, I'm glad to see Major League Baseball trying to be a little bit forward-thinking. I'm ambivalent about the changes, but something had to happen. With restrictions in amateur draft spending, it seemed obvious to me that the rich teams would pour money where they can - which would have been in international free agents if it had remained completely unregulated.

However, there is more to signing young players abroad than the money. Discovering them is still a bit of an art form. Teams that are serious about acquiring international talent have their own baseball academies. The new spending limits do not apply to these academies at all.

Also, many of the countries that baseball is popular in, particularly in Latin America, have huge gaps between the wealthy and poor. I worry that the limits on signing bonuses will stimulate corrupt systems in the long run. What's stopping a local agent of sorts of strong-arming local talents to trust him with their baseball careers, and then directing players to different baseball team academies for a fee? Those costs wouldn't count towards the MLB spending cap. We just saw Wilson Ramos get kidnapped in Venezuela, and it's somewhat common for baseball players to face burglary and kidnappings, thanks to their wealth. There are some interesting stories about the people that help players defect from Cuba too. Middle men hunting for pay days aren't that far away from international baseball with the way things were, and I worry that the new system might allow these type of people more access to wealth, perhaps directly from MLB organizations.

Social Media

I can't believe this hasn't got more attention, but MLB will be cracking down on social media to some degree. One new provision is that "All Players will be subject to a policy governing the use of Social Media." Who knows what that looks like, but tweets from players are bound to look different than they do right now. With as prevalent as Twitter is these days, this is a little sentence that will change how fans interact with the game.

There are other changes too, notably to drug testing, future games in new countries, batting helmets, and the visibility of tobacco use.

Overall, the new CBA is truly a new agreement. It has tons of changes. I'm a fan of almost all of them, and there are only a few (like the new international free agent system) that I'm skeptical of. MLB is going to look different in the coming years, but I welcome most of the changes. The league was in good shape, and positioned itself for further growth the next five years. It's a good time to be a baseball fan - though I guess there's never been a time where it hasn't been good to be a baseball fan.