Welcome to the end of baseball … for a while, at least.
At 11:59 p.m. ET Wednesday, the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association expired. At 12:01 Thursday morning, the league informed the players that it had locked them out, beginning the game’s first work stoppage in more than 25 years.
Major League Baseball has officially implemented a lockout, sources tell ESPN. The ninth work stoppage in the sport’s history has begun.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) December 2, 2021
So what does that mean for the rest of the offseason? How long will it last? What are the sticking points in the negotiations? And what’s a lockout, anyway?
ESPN baseball expert Jesse Rogers tackles those questions and more.
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How did we get here? What is a lockout — and why now?
The last deal between Major League Baseball and the 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 on the road. It also addresses the greater economics of the game, such as free agency and arbitration. And it ended at midnight. At 12:01, the owners locked out the players, hoping to push the union into a more urgent state of negotiation. It’s essentially the antithesis of a players’ strike. Since players don’t get paid in the offseason, nor are there games, there’s nothing for them to strike over. Instead, the league chose to halt all player activity as it relates to their teams. No free-agent signings, no use of team facilities — in fact, no contact of any kind between team and player — is allowed until a new agreement is reached.
How long is the lockout expected to last? Could games be lost next year?
Yes, games could be lost. That’s always a possibility once a work stoppage occurs, but with three months until the regular season begins, it would be shocking if 2022 didn’t go a full 162 games. There is a chance spring training doesn’t start on time, using that period as a soft deadline to force some issues to get resolved, but we’re 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 economically and from a public relations standpoint.
What is main sticking point in the negotiations between the owners and players?
Economics. Players feel, with the emergence of analytics within front offices, that fewer and fewer second- and third-tier players are getting paid when they finally become free agents after six years of major league service time, which is often when a player turns 30 or very close to it. In general, players would like to be paid more at younger ages because that’s when they are in their prime. The system also favors keeping players in the minor leagues for several weeks extra to slow down their major league service time. Players hate that. Additionally, they feel the cycle of teams rebuilding (aka tanking) is limiting payrolls. They would like some guardrails within the system to prevent those cycles. One good thing for the players: As long as there is no salary cap, the system will always pay the best of the best — something the league likes to emphasize. Owners haven’t even offered a hard cap during negotiations.
What does the lockout mean for free agency and trades? Are the winter meetings canceled?
Everything halts. The major league portion of the winter meetings, scheduled for next week, are canceled. (The minor league side of the meetings will continue.) There would be little point to holding the meetings, since agents can’t meet with teams. In fact, team personnel aren’t even allowed to speak to the media about players on 40-man rosters during the lockout. And teams aren’t supposed to talk to each other about their players also. So technically, no trades will be agreed upon during the lockout — assuming executives follow the letter of the lockout law. Young players looking for feedback from their coaches, during winter bullpen or hitting sessions, are on their own now as well. Simply put, team personnel are prohibited from any contact with players on their 40-man rosters. Offseason drug testing will stop and pick up as soon as a new CBA is ratified
Who are the leading figures on each side of the bargaining table?
Former big leaguer Tony Clark is the face of the players’ union, while commissioner Rob Manfred is the same for the league. A lot of negotiating is done by their lieutenants, mainly lawyers Dan Halem for the league and Bruce Meyer for the players. Some owners are in on the meetings, while the executive board of the union consists of eight players: Max Scherzer, Marcus Semien, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Lindor, Jason Castro, Zack Britton, Andrew Miller and James Paxton. They report back to player reps for each team who will keep the rank and file informed as needed.
How much animosity is there?
Perhaps animosity is too strong of a word. There’s definitely a disconnect. The league believes that major league baseball players have the best system among all professional sports unions — starting with baseball not having a hard salary cap — but is open to a few tweaks. The players want more dramatic change, beginning with ending the cycle of rebuilding. Some of the rhetoric from last summer’s pandemic negotiations is probably shaping the public’s perception of these, but at least the sides are talking. Is it all in good faith at the moment? Perhaps not, but they’ll eventually get down to brass tacks and figure it out.
What are the key dates to watch out for as the lockout continues?
Not all teams have announced spring training report dates yet, but let’s use Feb. 1 as a soft deadline for camps to open on time a little later that month. Even if there is a scramble, it would allow enough time for players to get where they need to be. The good news is that other than the winter meetings, the baseball calendar is pretty clear in December and January, so it’s not like the shutdown will impact games or events. Essentially, the sides have up to two months to figure this out before issues start to arise. Pushing back the start of spring training could mean losing spring games, which means losing money. The dynamic between the sides may get ornery at that point — if it isn’t already by then.
What are some of the more radical changes to the game we could see as a result of a new CBA?
Let’s start with an expanded postseason. The league wants 14 teams to make the playoffs with a creative attempt to incentivize winning. The best team in each league would receive a bye, while other division winners would get to choose their wild-card opponent. That’s pretty dramatic. We could also see a pitch clock implemented and, eventually, further caps on the number of pitchers on a roster. Off the field, the nature of arbitration could change, as well as the age or service time in which a player becomes a free agent. The amateur draft could be in for a change as well. As for service-time manipulation, there may not be a compromise that fully solves that problem. Move back the date that gives a player a year of service time, and teams will just keep players in the minors longer.
Which side is likelier to get what it wants?
The system won’t turn into a win-win for the players, but in terms of getting a few things moving in their favor, they should end up with something to be happy about. It could be in the form of an overhauled arbitration system, the designated hitter in the National League, a higher luxury-tax threshold or a quicker route to free agency. They just won’t get all of those things.