What you need to know about a looming MLB lockout

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark speak before Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 26, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Ron Blum)

Credit: Ron Blum

Credit: Ron Blum

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark speak before Game 1 of the World Series on Oct. 26, 2021, in Houston. (AP Photo/Ron Blum)

The business of baseball could come to a screeching halt if the MLB owners and the players’ union haven’t agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement by 11:59 p.m. Dec. 1.

That’s when the current CBA expires, after which Major League Baseball may impose a lockout that would freeze trades and free-agent signings and ultimately could threaten the start of spring training and even the regular season.

A lockout would be MLB’s first work stoppage since the infamous strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series.

For the Braves, a lockout could mean a long delay in resolving free-agent Freddie Freeman’s future (unless, of course, he signs before a shutdown), a stall in answering other questions about the 2022 roster and an interruption in the ticket-sales momentum created by winning the World Series.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred hasn’t committed publicly to a lockout, consistently stating that the focus is on reaching an agreement with the Players Association. But he seemed to confirm the long-presumed likelihood during a press conference following an owners’ meeting in Chicago last week.

“Honestly, I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” he said.

Here are five things to know about where baseball soon could find itself:

1. Why would the owners launch a lockout?

The expiration of the current collective bargaining agreement doesn’t automatically trigger a lockout (or a strike). The owners, essentially represented by the commissioner’s office, could let free agency and other offseason business proceed as usual while continuing to negotiate with the union, which is led by executive director Tony Clark. But the main argument for a lockout sooner rather than later is what happened in 1994.

Some 4-1/2 months into that season, on Aug. 12, 1994, the players commenced what turned out to be a season-ending strike. A lockout this offseason would be a preemptive tactic, intended to lessen the likelihood of losing games next year by creating leverage and urgency four months before the scheduled start of the regular season.

“I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season,” Manfred said. “That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”

But whether a lockout would accelerate an agreement, or simply deepen divisions and harden positions and inflame the negotiations, is debatable.

2. What’s MLB’s history of work stoppages?

There have been eight of them, all from 1972-1995, including five strikes and three lockouts. Strikes are initiated by the players’ union and lockouts imposed by the owners, but the result is largely the same: a shutdown of the sport on and off the field.

Baseball’s longest work stoppage was the 232-day strike in 1994-95. The second-longest carved almost two months out of the 1981 season. Five of the work stoppages resulted in no regular-season games ultimately being lost (if games were canceled, they were made up).

The specific issues have varied, but unsurprisingly always have boiled down to money. The first strike in 1972 was in part about pension benefits. Subsequent strikes or lockouts centered around fights over salary arbitration, free-agency eligibility and compensation for teams losing free agents. The ugliest fight of all, in 1994, was triggered by the players’ well-founded belief the owners intended to implement a salary cap.

Baseball has enjoyed 26 years of labor peace since resuming in 1995, reaching agreement on four CBAs during that stretch without strikes or lockouts, but progress toward a deal has been much slower this year.

3. What are the most difficult issues this time?

While MLB was thriving financially before COVID-19 and bounced back impressively in 2021 after heavy financial losses in 2020, chasms have developed over a series of issues that impact player compensation. The players find more wrong with the current system than the owners do because the average salary hasn’t kept pace with the growth in team revenue and franchise values.

The union wants to change a core part of baseball’s economic system: Many players are severely underpaid early in their careers (before striking it rich in many cases after becoming eligible for arbitration and then free agency). For decades, by design, that system has suppressed the value of younger players while rewarding more experienced players. But now, as young stars increasingly dominate the sport, the other end of the economic equation is under stress, too, because of the clubs’ use of analytics and increasing reluctance to give lengthy and lucrative contracts to older players.

An obvious solution would be to reduce the number of years of service time required to make players eligible for arbitration and free agency. But the challenge, so far unmet, is for the two sides to find common ground on such adjustments.

The players also are seeking a softening of economic rules designed to restrain spending, such as the loss of draft picks by teams that sign certain free agents and the luxury tax imposed on teams with payrolls above a certain level. The owners, on the other hand, have proposed a move in the opposite direction: lowering the payroll level that triggers the luxury tax from $210 million to $180 million. Accompanying that proposal would be a minimum payroll level of $100 million per team.

Tanking and service-time manipulation are other issues that the union would like to address. Tanking is the increasingly popular (and sometimes successful) practice of lengthy “rebuilds” during which teams cut payroll, lose a lot of games and reap the long-term benefit of higher draft picks. Service-time manipulation occurs when teams keep players in the minor leagues to delay the start of their free-agency and arbitration clocks.

The owners made a proposal to address the service-time issue by making unsigned players eligible for free agency at 29.5 years old. Another change proposed by the owners would replace salary arbitration with determining the pay of players of three-to-five-years experience on the basis of FanGraphs WAR (wins above replacement) statistics. Neither idea seems to have the players’ support.

Clearly, there are a lot of thorny issues as the clock ticks.

4. Will the DH spread to the NL?

For fans who don’t want to hear about the economics of the negotiations, a more palatable issue might be whether a new labor deal will include a universal designated hitter. For many months, the consensus around baseball has been that yes, the National League almost surely will join the American League in adopting the DH.

There seems little remaining resistance to the idea among players, owners or even traditionalist managers, and with a few notable exceptions, such as the Braves’ Max Fried, pitchers won’t bemoan the loss of at-bats. But because adding the DH in the NL would increase the market value of some poor-fielding hitters, the owners will try to extract an economic tradeoff from the union elsewhere in the deal.

5. Will the playoffs expand?

The owners relish the prospect of bringing in additional TV revenue by adding more teams and more games to the postseason. In 2021, 10 teams – five in each league – made the playoffs. That could increase to 12 or 14 teams – six or seven per league -- as part of a new labor deal. The number of postseason games could be further increased by making the wild-card round best-of-three series.

The players appear to be less enamored with expanding the playoffs. Although more playoff games would result in larger postseason payouts for them, they may worry that that making it easier to qualify for the playoffs could make some teams less willing to spend on free agents. A counterargument is that spending might increase if expanded playoffs cause more teams to believe they’re on the cusp of contending for a berth. In any case, this isn’t the issue that will make or break a deal.