Since the Atlanta Braves won the 2021 World Series, ending an exciting postseason filled with surprises, the looming expiration of Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement was a reminder that, even with the league getting in a mostly normal season post-pandemic, that other threats could once again cause changes to the schedule.
Ownership and the MLB Players Union couldn’t reach an agreement by the deadline and, with the flip of a switch, mentions and photos of current players were wiped from MLB.com as the lockout went into place.
Several high-profile players rushed to agree to new contracts before the lockout, including Max Scherzer with the New York Mets, Javy Baez with the Detroit Tigers, Robbie Ray with the Seattle Mariners, Justin Verlander with the Houston Astros, and Corey Seager with the Texas Rangers. But many other stars remain on the market.
Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Kris Bryant, Clayton Kershaw, and Trevor Story are among the free agents still available who could dramatically improve a team’s chances of contending — when an actual season is allowed to start again.
Here are four things to keep an eye on as the lockout continues.
Games could be lost as a result of the lockout
The last time there was a labor stoppage was during the 1994-95 season. That stoppage occurred in August, in the midst of the regular season. It continued so long that the postseason and World Series were canceled and no champion was crowned.
Since this stoppage is occurring in the offseason, it should hopefully not cause another postseason to be lost. But if it is prolonged, it could impact things like the start of Spring Training or delay the start of the regular season.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said in a letter that games will not necessarily be canceled, but he noted that could be a byproduct if an agreement isn’t reached quickly.
“Delaying this process further would only put Spring Training, Opening Day, and the rest of the season further at risk — and we cannot allow an expired agreement to again cause an in-season strike and a missed World Series, like we experienced in 1994,” Manfred wrote. “We all owe you, our fans, better than that.”
In a statement by the MLB Players Association, they called the lockout a “tactic” of the owners and shared a hope that the matter will be resolved and games won’t be missed.
“These tactics are not new. We have been here before, and players have risen to the occasion time and again — guided by a solidarity that has been forged over generations. We will do so again here,” the statement said. “We remain determined to return to the field under the terms of a negotiated collective bargaining agreement that is fair to all parties, and provides fans with the best version of the game we all love.”
Pitchers and catchers typically report to Spring Training in mid-February.
What are the players looking for?
As with any labor impasse, the dispute is about money, with ownership claiming that player demands will put franchises at risk of being uncompetitive financially and players wanting more equitable sharing of revenue they generate.
NBC Sports reported that these are some of the key issues for players. “The MLBPA wants to address service time rules that restrict most young players to teams for the first six years of their career. The union also wants a luxury tax overhaul to lure teams to spend more on player salaries without fear of harsh tax penalties.”
Despite profits for the league and individual teams increasing, total player salaries have decreased every year since 2017.
ESPN also noted that teams use time in the minor leagues to slow down how quickly players see salary increases. “The system also favors keeping players in the minor leagues for several weeks extra to slow down their major league service time.”
How could a new CBA change the game?
In addition to salaries, there are other proposed changes that both teams would like to see.
MLBPA would like to see less incentive for teams to “tank” or enter prolonged rebuilding periods that allow organizations to depress player salaries for an expanded period of time. Some rule changes could dis-incentivize tanking. The NBA, for example, implemented a draft lottery to try and curb teams from openly playing for the worst record in order to get higher draft picks. MLB would reportedly like to implement a similar system.
The league would like to see the playoffs expanded to 14 teams, with the format shifted dramatically. There has also been talk about implementing a pitch clock to speed the game up. There’s also a desire to make NL teams use full-time designated hitters. Those sorts of changes are designed to make the game more fan-friendly, exciting, and faster-paced. The NL DH was used and the playoffs were briefly expanded during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and fans seemed to respond well to both before MLB reverted back to the previous format this season.
What about the rest of the offseason?
The MLB winter meetings, trade market, and free agency period that make up the “Hot Stove” give baseball one of the most-watched and beloved offseasons in sports. All of that is on hold now, though.
Teams are not allowed to communicate with players or their representatives during a lockout. However, players do get some compensation — teams don’t pay base salaries during the lockout, but do pay signing bonuses or deferred salary payments that are owed. That could be part of the reason several free agents scrambled to agree to new contracts before the lockout, to make sure they’d at least receive any bonus-oriented portions of those deals.
For other players, that means they won’t receive regularly scheduled payments until after a new CBA is in place.
Players are also on their own for workouts — they can’t access or use team facilities, which is particularly a hindrance for players rehabbing from major injuries.
After the lockout ends, it is likely to be followed by a rapid free agency restart period. But it is also conceivable several players could enter next season without contracts and not catch on with a new team until after play has started.
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