Welcome to the end of baseball … at least for a while.
At 11:59 pm ET, the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association will expire. If there isn’t a new one by then, the owners are expected to lock out the players.
So what does that mean for the rest of the offseason? How long will it last? What are the sticking points in the negotiations? Anyway, what is a lock?
ESPN baseball expert Jesse Rogers addresses those questions and more.
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How do we get here? What is a lockout and why now?
The last agreement between Major League Baseball and MLBPA was negotiated in 2016. The current collective bargaining agreement covers everything from how long the season will last to what kind of per diem players receive along the way. It also addresses the most important economic aspects of the game, such as free agency and refereeing. And it ends at midnight. If there is no new agreement, the owners are expected to choose the lockout option to push the union into a more urgent bargaining state. It is essentially the antithesis of a player’s strike. Since players are not paid in the offseason, nor are there games, they have nothing to do. Instead, the league can choose to stop all player activity in regards to their teams. No free agent signings are allowed, nor use of the team’s facilities, in fact, no contact of any kind is allowed between the team and the player until a new agreement is reached.
How long is the lockdown expected to last? Could they miss the games next year?
Yes, it could lose game. That’s always a possibility once a work stoppage occurs, but with three months left until the regular season begins, it would be shocking if 2022 weren’t a total of 162 games. There is a chance that spring training will not start on time, using that period as a soft deadline to force some issues to be resolved, but we are far from that happening. The sides already lost a lot of money during the pandemic. Anything short of a full season would be another devastating blow to the sport, both financially and in public relations.
What is the main stumbling block in negotiations between owners and players?
Economic issues. Players feel, with the rise of analytics within headquarters, that fewer and fewer second- and third-tier players are getting paid when they finally become free agents after six years of MLB service, which is often when a player turns 30 or close to it. In general, players would like to be paid more at younger ages because that is when they are at their best. The system also favors keeping players in the minor leagues for several more weeks to slow down their service time in the major leagues. Players hate that. Additionally, they feel that the team rebuilding cycle (also known as ‘tanking’ or losing on purpose) is limiting payroll. They would like to have some guardrails within the system to avoid those cycles. One good thing for players: as long as there is no salary cap, the system will always pay out the best of the best, something the league likes to emphasize. The owners have not even offered a ceiling during the negotiations.
What does the lockout mean for free agency and trades? Are winter meetings canceled?
Everything stops except that the teams can still talk to each other. Trades may be consumed during the lockout but not announced until after it ends. The major league portion of the winter meetings, scheduled for next week, would be canceled. It would not make much sense to hold the meetings, since agents cannot meet with teams. In fact, team personnel wouldn’t even be able to speak to the media about players on 40-man rosters during the lockout. The minor league side of the meetings would continue. The offseason drug testing would also be halted. They will be recovered as soon as a new collective agreement is ratified.
Who are the main figures on either side of the negotiating table?
Former Major League Baseball player Tony Clark is the face of the Players Union, while Commissioner Rob Manfred is the same for the league. His lieutenants, primarily attorneys Dan Halem for the league and Bruce Meyer for the players, negotiate a lot. Some owners participate in the meetings, while the union’s executive board consists of eight players: Max Scherzer, Marcus Semien, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Lindor, Jason Castro, Zack Britton, Andrew Miller and James Paxton. They inform the representatives of the players of each team, who will keep the bases informed as necessary.
How much animosity is there?
Perhaps animosity is too strong a word. There is definitely a disconnect. The league believes that major league baseball players have the best system among all professional sports unions, starting with baseball that does not have a strict salary cap but is open to some adjustments. Players want a more dramatic change, starting with ending the rebuilding cycle. Some of the rhetoric from last summer’s pandemic negotiations is likely shaping public perception of them, but at least the parties are talking. Is it all in good faith at the moment? Maybe not, but eventually they will get to work and figure it out.
What are the key dates to watch out for as the lockdown continues?
Not all teams have announced spring training reporting dates yet, but let’s use February 1 as a soft deadline for camps to open on time a little later that month. Even if there is a fight, it would give the players plenty of time to get to where they need to be. The good news is that, aside from the winter meetings, the baseball calendar is pretty clear in December and January, so it’s not like the shutdown affects games or events. Essentially, the parties have up to two months to resolve this before problems start to arise. Delaying the start of spring training could mean missing spring games, which means losing money. The dynamic between the sides can get irritable at that point, if it hasn’t already been by then.
What are some of the most radical changes in the game that we could see as a result of a new collective agreement?
Let’s start with an extension of the postseason. The league wants 14 teams to reach the playoffs in a creative attempt to incentivize victory. The best team in each league would receive a pass, while other division winners would choose their wild card opponent. That is quite dramatic. We could also see a pitch clock implemented and eventually more caps on the number of pitchers on a roster. Off the field, the nature of refereeing could change, as well as the age or length of service in which a player becomes a free agent. The amateur draft could also change. When it comes to handling service time, there may not be a compromise that fully solves that problem. Roll back the date that gives a player one year of service, and teams will just keep players in the minors longer.
Which side is most likely to get what it wants?
The system won’t turn out to be a win-win for players, but in terms of getting some things moving in their favor, they should end up with something to be happy about. It could be in the form of a revised umpiring system, the designated hitter in the National League, a higher luxury tax threshold, or a faster route to free agency. They just won’t get all of those things.