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Starting Nine: Frustrations, realities and casualties amid MLB’s lockout

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Varying degrees of winning and losing and the parties feeling the hurt in baseball’s first work stoppage since 1994-95

MLB: DEC 02 Major League Baseball Lockout
MLB is in its first work stoppage since 1994-95 and the first lockout in 31 years.
Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Regardless of the pictures the public relations game paints, there are no victims in baseball’s labor negotiations, at least not between those at the bargaining table.

Commissioner Rob Manfred has done his posturing; so, too, has union chief Tony Clark. The league has pulled down content and anything else from its family of websites showing the image or likeness of current players; the MLBPA — per executive board member Max Scherzer — is digging in with a war chest of funds to help players get through an extended period without pay.

It feels like they’re worlds apart, but with two months before teams are to report to spring training, the season isn’t in jeopardy.

In this battle between millionaires and billionaires, the term “victims” shouldn’t come into play, and while we’ll also use “winners” loosely, there are varying degrees of winning and losing in this proposition.

Nine thoughts as MLB goes through its first work stoppage since 1994-95 and the first lockout in 31 years.

1. Waiting on Freeman is going to prove costly

There was a thought that in the last 24 hours before the end of the collective bargaining agreement that, because of the ease of logistics in needing to get a physical to make a deal official, that the Braves would announce a Freddie Freeman extension prior to the lockout. News flash: it didn’t happen. While the industry belief is that the five-time All-Star, three-time Silver Slugger and 2020 National League MVP will return to Atlanta, the report that the Braves have checked in on the A’s Matt Olson as a backup plan elicits worries. A report that the Dodgers are pushing yard elicits more worry. Dodgers reporter Dave Vassegh said this week “from my understanding, talking to people close to him, he has grown very impatient with the Atlanta Braves. Because the Atlanta Braves were taking the strategy of wait and see where the market goes before offering him a contract.” A sixth year believed to be a sticking point has seemed, and continues to seem, a head-scratching obstacle in keeping Freeman. If there’s a positive in all this, it’s that due to the transaction freeze, there’s no fear in losing the first baseman, and the Braves can come out of the lockout — whenever that end comes — and get across the finish line with a deal. But it may be the most confounding storyline of any team leading up to the stoppage that a Freeman contract didn’t get done. He wants to stay put; the Braves want him to stay put. For the immediate future, that continued relationship can’t be solidified, but if there was already frustration on Freeman’s part as he waited through last winter, a season that ended in a championship and two months into this offseason, you have to think it’s only going to build further frustration as he went into the lockout without something getting done. There’s going to be a feeding frenzy when the freeze thaws, and while we’ve heard Freeman is seeking $180 million for six years, does that change with teams being aggressive coming out of this lockout, especially if it’s on the brink of the season’s start? The waiting game may cost the Braves, one way or the other when it comes to this franchise cornerstone.

2. Manfred isn’t doing much to help image

This time, it’s on the league’s terms. That’s not meant as an indication of picking sides in this labor battle, but it’s an important aspect to remember in these proceedings, because things didn’t have to shut down. More than anything, this was a decision by the owners that took away the players’ leverage. In 1994, the league played on despite an expired collective bargaining agreement and the players went on strike that August, a timing that was crucial because it put the revenue of the postseason in doubt, and it led to a a work stoppage that lasted 232 days. Going this route may not speed anything up, but commissioner Rob Manfred was pretty clear when he said Thursday “You know, look, it’s part of the theory that underlies the National Labor Relations Act. People need pressure sometimes to get to an agreement. Candidly, we didn’t feel that sense of pressure from the other side during the course of this week, and the only tool available to you under the Act is to apply economic leverage.” With all that the players don’t have at their disposal (more on that later), baseball struck its preemptive blow, even if it’s one everybody knew was coming. But it’s the finger-pointing by Manfred that isn’t doing anything to endear him to fans, and neither is a press conference in which he deemed certain tactics as “legal issues.” Here’s a thought: use this opportunity to push the league’s agenda and hopes to grow the game, not using fans to create pressure on players. Manfred was already struggling in the court of public opinion, and the commissioner isn’t doing much to help that in the early stages of the lockout.

3. Stripping revenue share may not be a real solution

Tanking, the players say, is an epidemic. Last season, there were six teams that lost 95 or more games, a byproduct — according to uber-agent Scott Boras — of the slot value placed on draft picks in 2012 that made signing those players more likely. The unintentional consequence was the likes of the Astros and Cubs, who rode throwaway seasons in the early part of the last decade into World Series titles. The union is seeking to reduce revenue sharing by $100 million, with hopes to force teams to be more competitive. That may mean changes to the draft as well, but here’s one of those rare instances where Manfred may be right when he says, “Taking $100 million away from teams that are already struggling to put a competitive product on the field, I don’t see how that’s helpful.” Frankly, unless there’s some kind of salary floor some teams are only going to spend less money under whatever new parameters are in place to ensure profitability. Maybe a draft lottery or an expanded postseason curbs tanking, but the players can’t take full advantage of the way the Mets operate with seemingly zero regard for the luxury tax, and then begrudge the Guardians for picking windows to compete in a very different market with different constraints. The only way to truly level those playing fields is likely a salary cap, though we know that’s a sticking point stickier than what some pitchers were previously using.

4. Deals Braves took advantage of about to be a thing of the past

As Motörhead told us, it’s “All about control and if you can take it.” The teams have had it when it comes to the number of years before a player can reach free agency, and they have no desire to let it go. “The most negative reaction we have is when a player leaves via free agency,” Manfred said. “We don’t see that making it earlier, available earlier, we don’t see that as a positive.” That’s one of the major sticking points in these negotiations and boils down to the investment revolution we’ve seen in the game the last decade-plus: pay for what a player could do, not what they’ve done. That’s meant utilizing cheap, young talent and letting them walk when they are in their 30s, or the time when they finally reach free agency. However, these negotiations see that change — the league has proposed an age-based system that grants free agency at the end of a season after a player turns 29 1/2; the players want it to be after six years of service time or five years and an age threshold — it’s not only going to benefit the next generation of players but could also fast track the likes of Max Fried and Austin Riley into free agency. But if the mission to rid the game of teams’ ability to suppress salaries for prime seasons, it’s almost certain to change the willingness of players to sign criticized extensions like the ones the Braves inked Acuña and Ozzie Albies to in 2019, which included signing away up to four years of free agency. If players know they’re going to reach free agency that much faster and no longer hoping to remain viable into their 30s, those club-friendly extension figure to be a thing of the past for elite talent. So, enjoy what already looked like bargains. Should the union get its way, we may not see players of the ilk of Acuña or Albies sign that kind of a contract again.

5. Rehabbing players are the ones feeling the hurt

Those free agents sitting at home not knowing where they’ll be spending the upcoming season may feel frustrated, but it’s the rehabbing players that are the ones feeling the hurt. They can’t work with doctors and trainers at the team facility or have contact with them. “It’s not a question of league willingness,” Manfred said on the topic. “That’s a legal issue upon which we do not have flexibility.” That means Acuña can’t continue working back from his knee injury with Braves trainers, neither can Charlie Morton and his broken leg or Mike Soroka after his second Achilles surgery. This is potentially one of the most alarming aspects of this entire situation. This stopped didn’t come as any surprise to anyone involved, and it’s highly unlikely that the likes of Acuña, Morton and Soroka didn’t already work in conjunction with Braves medical staff to make sure they were arming whoever is taking over their rehabs with the way the team wants this to be handled. This is a lesson where MLB and the union should have learned from the NHL. During that league’s 2012 lockout, any player injured during a game or practice was not only paid their fully salary until they recovered but were also able to work with team doctors during that process. There’s the potential that without those same eyes on MLB players that it delays returns, something no one wants to see as a byproduct of this battle.

6. Winds of change for postseason

The postseason is headed for a change. Whether that’s the proposed 14-team structure the league is angling for, which includes three division winners and four wild cards or the player’s idea of a 12-team playoff that includes divisional realignment, it seems certain we’ve seen the end of the 10-team field. The MLB proposal is especially convoluted and includes one juicy nugget where two of the lower division winners get to pick their wild-card round opponents. However, this ends up, bookmark this topic as one of the biggest pieces of leverage that the union has in its pocket, because last December, MLB sold the rights to a best-of-three first round to ESPN. That coincides with the league’s new deal with the broadcaster, which begins in 2022. So, this is an area where MLB has major pressure to get things done, and the union is all too aware of that.

7. Agent of frustration

Amid the spending spree that saw $1.9 billion doled out to free agents before Wednesday’s CBA expiration, no one made a bigger statement than the clients of Boras, the agent who ripped the game’s “competitive cancer.” “This is actually kind of fun,” Scherzer said after inking $130 million deal with the Mets. “I’m a fan of the game, and to watch everybody sign right now, to actually see teams competing in this kind of timely fashion, it’s been refreshing because we’ve seen freezes for the past several offseasons.” The right-hander, along with Rangers signees Corey Seager ($325 million) and Marcus Semien ($175) gave Boras clients $630 million, all wrapped up ahead of the lockout, and he still has Kris Bryant, Nick Castellanos, Carlos Rodon and Michael Conforto. There’s more than a little irony in the guy that is bemoaning teams for not spending was responsible for getting them to commit to more than half a billion in the flurry before the labor deal expired.

8. HOF Era Committee announcement delivered a blow

With the lockout, baseball’s Winter Meetings scheduled for Dec. 6-9 in Orlando were canceled, at least the major-league portion of the proceedings. It means the wheelings and dealings that come from one of the few times executives from all 30 teams are together won’t happen, and while the minor-league event — along with the job fair, trade show, etc. — will continue, there’s also another potential casualty without the hoopla of the full Winter Meetings in effect: the Hall of Fame. The Golden Days and Early Baseball committees are schedule to meet Sunday and announce any inductees into the Class of 2022. Being on hand in Washington, D.C., in 2016 when former Braves general manager John Schuerholz, along with former commissioner Bud Selig, took the podium after being elected into the HOF, this is an unfortunate development. Negro League legend Buck O’Neil is almost certain to be voted in, and among the 20 players across the committee era ballots, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva and Maury Wills are the only living candidates, and any losing out on that moment at the podium after induction is unfortunate. It’s especially damning given that we’re almost reached the year mark of MLB fully embracing Negro League statistics, and O’Neil’s expected announcement not getting the full media audience at the Winter Meetings is unfortunate.

9. The real loser here: it’s clear

It’s me and you, your momma and your cousin, too. Go to any of MLB’s family of websites and all you’ll find — along with Manfred’s letter and CBA updates — are historical articles. Rosters have grayed-out images and video of minor-league players, who aren’t locked out. It’s, per Manfred, a legal necessity, but who’s really being impacted by this? The fans are. Maybe it’s part of the tactics, which further pushes the league agenda that the players are the bad guys here but limiting the ability to feed fans’ need for content while the most popular league in this country — the NFL — is in-season isn’t helping baseball. At least there’s YouTube for game replays and the likes of Braves reliever Tyler Matzek entertaining on Twitter. But this coming off the pandemic and people finally getting back into ballparks isn’t helping the game. Let’s hope that’s something both sides remember.