Just after the Collective Bargaining Agreement expired at the flip of the clock overnight, Major League Baseball’s owners decided to lock out the players. It’s a negotiating tactic, to be sure, but it’s going to impact fans who were otherwise getting all fired up about the flurry of transaction activity over the past week. We all knew this day was coming, but that doesn’t mean we can’t point out that it sucks.
The Players Association issued a relatively brief statement, pointing out that a lockout was not necessary, and that they’ll stay engaged:
Statement from the Major League Baseball Players Association: pic.twitter.com/34uIGf762W
— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) December 2, 2021
By contrast, MLB issued a lengthy, harsh, needlessly combative statement from Commissioner Rob Manfred. If it were your only context for these CBA negotiations, you would be led to believe the owners kept bending over backwards to try to make a deal but the players wouldn’t negotiate at all. Manfred’s main focus is on explaining to fans the owner perspective on why a lockout HAD to happen right now, resulting in the sport’s first work stoppage in 26 years. Strictly speaking, it did NOT have to happen, but the aim is to force a stoppage now so that a deal can get done before it impacts next season. The rest of the statement is more or less about how good the league and the owners have been in this process, and how difficult the players have been. Standard stuff.
A particularly disingenuous section: “We have not proposed anything that would change these fundamentals. While we have heard repeatedly that free agency is ‘broken’ – in the month of November $1.7 billion was committed to free agents, smashing the prior record by nearly 4x.”
Firstly, of course MLB has not proposed a change to the fundamental economic structure of the game! It’s benefited the owners disproportionately over the last decade, as revenue growth has outpaced player salary growth. That’s just not how it should be, in my view, but of course MLB is happy if its owners continue to get an ever-larger share of the pie. Why would they want a fundamental change?
Secondly, are you seriously trying to use THIS November as proof of anything? The only reason free agency went bonkers was *BECAUSE* of the CBA expiration. That’s like telling a guy with two broken legs that he doesn’t need to fix the legs because he doesn’t walk anywhere anymore anyway.
As for MLB’s efforts to come to a deal, based on the reporting – which, as always, we only know as much as what is leaked – it doesn’t sound like that is at all accurate, either. You can read about the proposals here, here, and here, among other places, but the sense you get is that MLB was patently unwilling to even discuss in a real way the most important pillar of what the players were seeking (earlier free agency, and earlier arbitration). What the players were seeking on that front – again, reportedly – seemed extremely reasonable to me: some players would eventually qualify for free agency after five years of service time if they were also already 29.5 years old, and some more players (than currently do) would qualify for arbitration after two years.
Moreover, on some other key issues, it doesn’t seem like ownership is serious about its current offers (the luxury tax limit bumps offered are tiny (and come with harsher penalties for going over), the draft lottery is barely a lottery at all, etc.).
That is all to say, despite the language to the contrary in Manfred’s statement, the reporting so far all seems to point to a decision by ownership to lock out the players a long time ago, and not seriously try to come to a deal by last night (unless it was another overwhelming win for the owners). That’s disappointing, as it continues a tradition of caring more about the near-term dollar than the long-term health of the sport. Not that it’s a surprise.
So what now?
Well, as you know, the lockout means no activity of any kind involving interrelationships between the players and the teams. No conversations. No transactions. No training. No rehab. No nothing. Minor leaguers can continue their normal offseason work with the teams, but if you’re on the 40-man roster, all contact and facilities are cut off.
The big question is when do the sides seriously engage in discussions again. Given that the urgency was not there to get a deal done right now, given that the sides never really got much closer before the deadline, given that the loss of Spring Training games would be the first pain point for owners, and given that forcing a transaction squeeze right before Spring Training could further benefit the owners, well, I think you know where I’m going. The thinking has been that February 1 is something of a soft deadline to have a new deal and allow for a couple weeks of transactions, and then a normal Spring Training. In that case, you’d pretty much HAVE TO see the sides back in serious negotiations by mid-January. At a minimum, I wouldn’t expect any serious negotiations before the new year. The time pressure just won’t be there, and the holidays are going to give folks a reason to shut it down. So you just have to root for something picking back up in January.
Absent that, all bets are off, and one side or the other is going to try to leverage the loss of real baseball activity if this gets into February. That’s when there’d be even more problems for the sport’s image and interest from fans, which I think is already going to be strained by this lockout, no matter what Manfred says. Fans had to deal with the pandemic shutdown, the ugly fighting that followed, the shortened fake-ish season, and a strained return to ballparks this year. It’s not a great time to be introducing additional strife.
Meanwhile, the Winter Meetings are cancelled (though it kinda feels like we just had them, from a transaction standpoint). No new player movement until this is resolved. No team news. No conventions. No joy in Mudville. It’s going to be really weird, and there will be some figuring-things-out-as-we-go. I’ve certainly never covered anything like this before.