Barring a late resolution, Major League Baseball will enter a work stoppage on Thursday, as owners enact a lockout that ends a run of 26 years of labor peace. For the Atlanta Braves and the rest of the league, that means a slow-moving offseason that picked up steam in recent days is about to come to a screeching halt while economic issues and lawyers from both sides take center stage.
To understand where baseball is heading, it’s important to understand how things got to this point. It is true that although the existing Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) expires at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday, the owners are not required to institute a lockout — the owners and players could agree to just continue negotiating while extending the provisions of the prior CBA. However, the lockout seems inevitable at this point — especially since the owners and players have already agreed to move up the non-tender deadline ahead of the CBA expiration, tacitly agreeing that an interruption will take place on December 1. The owners will go the lockout route to prevent giving the players the opportunity to walk out at a later date, which happened in 1994 as players elected to go on strike, thus bringing the regular season to an abrupt end.
The league is not likely to go that route again. A lockout could be a tool used to spur negotiations and build some urgency for both sides. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred painted it in a less than negative light earlier this month while speaking from the owner’s meetings.
“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,” Manfred said at a press conference to end the owner’s meetings.”
Make no mistake, there are plenty of negatives that will come from of a lockout, and it is another example of the less than stellar relationship between this league and its players.
MLBPA executive director Tony Clark oversaw negotiations for the current CBA back in 2016. That deal has been panned as a loss for players and win for ownership. It is true that concessions made in the previous deal in 2011 may have put the players on a losing path, but they are ready to draw a line in the sand now and are motivated to secure economic changes in the sport.
The union hired lawyer Bruce Meyer in 2018 to serve as its lead negotiator as Clark sought to bolster the MLBPA’s staff following the 2016 negotiations. Meyer is a veteran of sports labor negotiations, having previously worked with the players’ unions in basketball, football and hockey.
Meyer was hired to bring a different view to the negotiations and was a direct response to the frustrations brought on by the last round of collective bargaining in 2016. Meyer’s name is going to be front and center during the upcoming negotiations and his goals are clear.
“Players feel like the system has gotten out of whack and really gone too far in favoring the owners,” Meyer said. “The system isn’t operating really the way it was traditionally intended to operate. And that is in part because of the groupthink that we see in front offices and analytics. The way front offices are valuing players and paying players has developed in a way that makes changes to our agreement necessary.”
“There’s also a feeling among players that front offices have become very good at manipulating the system to their advantage. … We want to make changes designed to incentivize competition for players and remove disincentives for that competition. We want to find ways to get players compensated at an earlier stage of their careers when the teams are valuing them the most. And we want to preserve the fundamental principles of a market system.”
What the players want
So, what exactly are the players looking for? The MLBPA put together a work stoppage guide and distributed it to players and agents earlier this month. The guide outlined what players should expect during the lockout. It also included a list of four key bargaining priorities:
- Incentivizing competition;
- Ensuring the most talented players are on the field;
- Reducing artificial restraints on competition; and
- Getting players their value earlier in their career.
If you have followed the game in recent years, then you have no doubt been presented with each of those arguments at some point in time. Service time, tanking, and the hollowing out of the “middle class” of free agents have all driven headlines in recent years, and the players see each of these as key issues to be addressed during negotiations.
One of the key objectives for the union will be making changes to ensure that all teams remain competitive and will no longer gain incentives by losing games. In recent seasons, the term “tanking” has become synonymous with rebuilding clubs. Teams have shipped away older, more expensive players to maximize draft picks and, in many cases, build back a younger and cheaper roster. Teams like the Astros and the Cubs are often mentioned in these circles, but the Braves underwent a similar, if less extreme, process. To summarize, a substantial chunk of the league continually appears engaged in a race to the bottom, where teams are rewarded with higher draft picks and larger bonus pools for putting a worse product on the field. The union would like to address that system and not reward teams for losing games.
The union is also seeking changes to the existing pay structure. Currently, players are under team control for the first six years of their career, which can easily be extended to seven years by delaying a player’s promotion for just a few weeks at the beginning of a season. Players become arbitration-eligible after their third season, or after their second season if they meet a “Super Two” service time cutoff. Teams have gamed existing systems by keeping players in the minor leagues for an amount of time that prevents them from accruing a full year of service in their debut season, and sometimes, beyond a “Super Two” deadline to economize on a potential extra year of salary arbitration eligibility.
As teams have come to rely more on analytics, the market for older players, which has in the past involved paying for prior performance, has cooled. The main focus of roster construction has rapidly reoriented to younger players, who are inherently less expensive and are years away from entering free agency. Unlike the past, older players have therefore had a tougher time finding big money free agent deals on the open market. Even before they hit free agency, front offices are more informed and therefore far more reluctant to hand out a mega-extension to a player on the wrong side of 30 just to avoid them hitting the open market.
Therefore, the union wants to get players more money earlier in their careers to offset the lack of spending on older free agents. At its core, this is the most critical issue the union faces during these discussions. The league has proposed moving free agency to an age-based system. The union will favor a system that includes an age component along with service time, as a pure age-based system could annihilate the current phenomenon of mega-deals for phenoms who get called up in their early 20s and hit free agency well before turning 30. On the other hand, the average rookie in 2021 was just over 23 years of age, so an age-based system that grants free agency substantially before 30 years of age would represent a substantial concession from the owners. Some kind of sliding-scale system may be needed if team control is reorganized around these lines.
Another area of importance that goes along with player salaries is reducing artificial constraints on player compensation. The league instituted the Competitive Balance Tax (luxury tax) in the 2016 CBA. Under this system, teams are penalized if their total payroll commitments eclipse a designated threshold, with harsher penalties for continued overages across multiple seasons. This tax framework was sold as a way to help small market teams compete against big market teams who often have more financial resources available to them, by taxing spending. However, some teams have treated it as a de facto salary cap which, combined with the tanking problem, has put a further squeeze on the players. The ability of a team to “reset” its penalties by dropping under the threshold creates perverse incentives, where teams purposefully take a step back in one year to support a spending spree the following season.
The league has proposed a soft salary floor to go along with a lowered luxury tax threshold. That would lessen the gap between payrolls, but is not likely to be met favorably by the union, because of the severe antipathy that the MLBPA holds against anything that would impose further restrictions on top-level spending. If the union already feels that the current threshold imposes a soft cap, an even lower threshold seems like a difficult sell unless there are many other concessions to the players.
Draft pick compensation is another element of contention. Currently teams can offer a player a Qualifying Offer which gives the team draft pick compensation should the player sign elsewhere. While the move was sold as one that enhanced competitive balance by making it relatively less expensive for teams to retain their pending free agents, the result has often just been to suppress a player’s market, without really making the player’s former team more competitive in terms of retaining the player’s services. There were many ways for the CBA to encourage roster continuity and give lower-budget teams a leg up in this regard, but the CBA went with one that inherently hurt players, which may be something the union may want to renegotiate.
Naturally, the union is not in favor of anything that restricts player’s earning power and would like to see a totally free market — though that has its own implications for competitive balance.
How will the Braves be affected by a lockout?
If the owners institute a lockout Thursday as expected, then the offseason will be frozen. That means that free agency would stop, the salary arbitration process will be paused, and the Rule 5 draft would be postponed until a deal is reached. The major league portion of the Winter Meetings will be canceled as well, and players will be unable to access club facilities.
A few free agents have elected to sign early and not wait for the uncertainty that comes with being unattached during a lockout. However, Freddie Freeman remains unsigned and there have been few updates on the status of negotiations between him and the Braves. It was already going to be a long, drawn-out affair, and the lockout will just prolong that.
Atlanta also has several holes on their current roster which will need to be addressed. They have needs basically everywhere but the infield. That process will stop and will set up a sprint for teams and free agents to come to terms once a deal is finally in place.
Additionally, players will not be allowed to access team facilities. That means injured players such as Charlie Morton, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mike Soroka will not be able to continue rehabbing at team facilities. This is not as grim as it sounds, as teams and players have been aware for some time that a lockout was coming and already have a plan in place. Still, it is an unfortunate byproduct of the situation.
While the league has been exploring many rule changes for a while now, they will take a back seat to the economic issues in the CBA discussions. Still, we are likely to see a few changes implemented for next season.
It is important to remember that as commissioner, Rob Manfred has the authority to implement rule changes unilaterally. Still, he has thus far preferred to get the players and the union to agree to any changes.
Both sides agreed to institute the Universal Designated Hitter (DH) during the shortened 2020 season. They were not able to come to an agreement for the 2021 season, but it seems like a safe bet that the DH will be a full-time part of the game going forward in both leagues. One reason that the DH was not implemented in 2021 was that ownership wanted expanded playoffs in return, which tells you how fraught the negotiating situation has been — ownership wanted a concession in exchange for something that had already been implemented, and that both sides are positive about. In 2020, as a result of the shortened season, the league implemented an expanded postseason with a 16-team field, that led to some below-.500 teams making the postseason, with the 29-31 Astros making it all the way to the ALCS. Reports suggest that the league is looking to expand to 14 teams going forward. Naturally, the union fears that more postseason spots will de-incentivize spending so the competition part of the equation will need to be worked out in advance. With that said, it will be surprising if the DH and an expanded postseason is not in place in 2022. It’s important for players to fight an expanded postseason, which has the potential substantially eat into team-level spending, but they’ve been outmaneuvered in negotiations before.
The other substantial change that seems to be imminent has to do with the pitch clock, which has been tested at several different levels in the minors. Pace of play has been a focus of the league for a while, and this may be the point where the clock becomes a part of the major league game.
The league has also had many other experiments including restricting defensive shifts and an automated strike zone. You can expect those experiments to continue, and it will be interesting to see if any other rule changes make their way into these discussions. After a bunch of changes to the baseball, and the enhanced enforcement of sticky substance usage that began this summer, the league may also start experimenting with “pre-tacked” baseballs to try to satisfy both itself and players.
Expanded postseason aside, rule changes are somewhat separate from the player compensation issues that will likely drive negotiations, and may not be the focus of the negotiating table.