In theory, spring training begins in just over a month.
In reality, the substance and tone of Thursday’s meeting between MLB owners and locked-out players could serve as an early warning system for a potential delay of spring training, the regular season will be delayed, or even whether the season will need to shortened from 162 games.
That’s not an exaggeration of how high the stakes have grown after the sides took 42 days to marshal their thoughts and tactics concerning all-important core economic issues since the Dec. 2 lockout.
MLB proposed the afternoon video conference earlier this week. The content of the proposal presented by negotiators from the Commissioner’s office and owners on the labor policy committee will offer a first but far from final hint about if and when these dug-in sides will move towards resolution on a new collective bargaining agreement.
MLB may focus first on the players’ concerns about incentivizing winning rather than the current set-up with teams tanking (and spending less) in order to rebuild courtesy of high draft picks, according to USA Today. That could mean a proposal that eliminates draft pick compensation for free agents and/or establishes a lottery for a still-to-be-determined number of top picks.
This is certainly an area of concern for the union. Depending on what strings, if any, come attached to draft pick system changes, this could be an area of early consensus. It could come down to settling on a number of teams that would be in a lottery. The players would want more teams, the owners less, but finding the right number shouldn’t be all that difficult.
Will the owners address another facet to competitive integrity, revenue sharing, which the players want to decrease by $100 million?
Progress, even if theoretical, on the draft front would help, but there’s a lot more than competitive integrity changes being sought by the players.
The magnitude of reaching consensus on those issues — paying younger players, raising luxury tax thresholds, reducing service-time manipulation, reducing the time it takes to reach arbitration and free agency — grows bigger as the clock ticks toward the first do-or-delay deadline.
Finding a new high-enough minimum salary — it’s currently at $575,500 and the owners have reportedly offered starting at $600,000, short of where the players want it to start — may prove to be child’s play compared to the effort it would take to bridge the gap between MLB’s idea of raising the luxury tax threshold from $210 million to $214 and on up to $220 million and the union’s ask of an initial threshold at $245 million.
When the lockout began, the union said it had been told that MLB would not be open to making changes to revenue sharing, changes in service time, and changes to service-time transactions.
The players have not made a similar yes-no list.
If MLB does start with changes to the draft set-up, it’s at least a start — which for these two sides means a lot, even if it’s not instantly palatable to the players.
Whether this modest beginning leads to an end both sides can live with is a question that’s too early to answer, a question being asked with a baseball calendar that is running out of time.