With the collective bargaining agreement between MLB players and owners expiring at 11:59 p.m. EST on Wednesday, the threat of the first baseball labor stoppage in 26 years is imminent.
If it happens, free agent signings and trades would be forbidden. The major league portion of the annual winter meetings would be canceled. Spring training facilities would be shuttered, meaning players using them for rehab and conditioning would have to go elsewhere. General managers, owners, managers, and coaches would not be allowed to speak about players to the media.
Here are some answers to questions about what’s at stake, how baseball reached this point, and who’s charged with striking or whiffing on a peace pact:
Is a lockout as bad as it sounds?
Not necessarily, although it’s certainly not a positive development. It’s a pressure tactic from the owners to get a deal done so next season can start on time and as usual — meaning teams can sell tickets and players can get paid.
What about a players’ strike or walkout?
That’s the players’ pressure tactic, although one they would not need to exercise before the start of spring training or the start of the regular season.
Would the players actually strike?
The success or failure of the negotiations may ultimately hinge on how seriously owners view the players’ unity and determination to forgo their paychecks to bring about change. Indications from the players point to them being far more determined than they were five years ago to walk out or strike.
If that happens, then what?
A wedge will emerge eventually in the owners’ or players’ unity, and it’s way too early to predict where the division will occur.
How will fans react?
That’s highly predictable. They will hate it, just like in 1994-95, during the last work stoppage.
Who is more susceptible to public pressure?
Give the nod here to owners, who are already ultra-concerned with the aging demographics of their fan base. The sport is trying hard and thinking creatively about how to reach younger fans. It’s too soon to say if it has hit on the right formula, especially with ongoing attempts at rule changes to shorten game lengths and increase offense. Piling a work stoppage on top of a pandemic year and subsequent recovery may be a tall order for 30 owners to accept.
What is the players’ biggest concern?
In short, players think their salaries are not keeping pace with owners’ revenues.
In an era where gross revenues of baseball were on a 16-year climb until the pandemic — topping out at $10.7 billion in 2019, according to Forbes — revenues devoted to player compensation at the major league level have flattened and dropped.
Teams tanking and underpaying younger players are a central concern, and players see the two as closely connected.
Thanks to real-life, analytics-inspired results, teams covet younger talent more than ever while they are shying away from expensive long-term contracts for older free agents. The amateur draft is the main source for that young talent, and teams with poorer records get first crack at the best of that talent pool. As those players blossom, sometimes well before they have played the six-year minimum to become a free agent, teams don’t have to pay free agent premiums. As a result, overall payroll spending goes down.
So, what will the players ask for?
They seek a reduction, likely two or three years, in the number of years it takes for a player to become a free agent. They want salary arbitration to begin after the second year, rather than the third. They want to close the loophole that allows teams to manipulate service time, a trick that essentially tacks an extra year of service before hitting free agency. They want to revise the draft rules that currently guarantee high picks for low-finishing teams.
They also want a higher competitive balance tax. In the last CBA, they were only able to negotiate an increase from $195 million in the first year to $210 million this year.
The players also want a universal DH. There’s more, but those are the main components.
What do the owners want in the next CBA?
What they’ve got, plus expanded playoffs and an international draft.
Seriously, is that it?
The owners are playing defense with the current CBA — the players want major changes, the owners want minor ones. The owners have proposed, according to The Athletic and New York Post, a lower CBT of $180 million with stiffer penalties plus a payroll floor of $100 million that also comes with penalties, automatic free agency when a player turns 29½ years old, and elimination of arbitration.
How do the players feel about expanded playoffs?
They’re not wild about them, since it gets back to their competition argument — if it’s easier to get into the playoffs than ever, a team doesn’t have to try as hard (and spend as much) to make the postseason. But there’s the potential for more revenue for players with more playoff games.
How much did the pandemic mess with these negotiations?
Like every other segment of everyone’s lives, a lot. Last summer’s public dispute over how many games to play arose from private negotiations held over Zoom, which could not have helped what are usually face-to-face negotiations. The players lost around 63 percent of their salaries, with the owners claiming roughly the same drop in gross revenues in 2020.
But that’s in the past, right?
It’s not. The union filed a grievance for $500 million, claiming the owners acted in “bad faith” by not agreeing to play more than 60 games. That case has yet to be heard by an arbitrator. A resolution one way or another before Dec. 1 will make one side happier than the other. A delay may turn the case into a bargaining chip for the players, since the owners won’t want to get stuck with that hefty bill.
Who are the key figures for MLB?
On the owners’ side, Rob Manfred will oversee his second CBA negotiation as commissioner, after helping out predecessor Bud Selig on this front since 1987. Directing all collective bargaining for MLB like Manfred once did is Dan Halem, deputy commissioner, baseball administration & chief legal officer.
Owners Dick Monfort of the Rockies and Ron Fowler of the Padres are among those actively involved on the Labor Policy Committee. John Henry, principal owner of the Red Sox (he owns the Globe, too), also sits on the labor committee.
For the players, former player Tony Clark serves as the executive director. The lead negotiator, Bruce Meyer, who was hired after the last CBA, serves as the association’s senior director, collective bargaining & legal. Assorted lawyers, economists, and staff lawyers will participate in sessions depending on the topic of the day.
Some of the player reps who might wind up playing a leading role include Andrew Miller, Max Scherzer, James Paxton, and Gerrit Cole. In addition to the 30 team representatives, the association has an eight-member executive committee of active players.
Michael Silverman can be reached at email@example.com.