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It looks like we’re headed for a MLB lockout

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Baseball could grind to a halt in December.

MLB Photos via Getty Images

Major League Baseball has been through two rough and uncertain years in 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the sport completed an abbreviated 60-game season with no fans in attendance. This year’s total MLB attendance of 45,304,709 was about 66 percent of the total from 2019, the last full season.

So teams have lost quite a bit of ticket revenue since 2019. You’d think that would factor in to the expiration of the MLB/MLBPA labor agreement that will happen December 1 and create some urgency to make a deal, but according to this AP article by Ronald Blum, it doesn’t look like a deal will happen before December:

Baseball’s ninth work stoppage and first in 26 years appears almost certain to start Dec. 2, freezing the free-agent market and threatening the start of spring training in February.

Negotiations have been taking place since last spring, and each side thinks the other has not made proposals that will lead toward an agreement replacing the five-year contract that expires at 11:59 p.m. EST on Dec. 1.

The luxury tax system that started with the 2003 season sunsets with the expiration of the labor contract, with the exception of completing accounting and payments for the 2021 tax year. Uncertainty over the 2022 season probably will cause high-spending clubs to delay reaching pricier player agreements.

That last sentence is the key. Cubs President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer has alluded to this a number of times when talking about planning for 2022. It’s not just the Cubs, either; no team is going to sign free agents when there’s uncertainty about the luxury tax system, as noted in the AP article, or indeed whether any rules regarding free agency might be changed.

Hoyer isn’t the only one:

New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman doesn’t know the parameters of what he has to spend.

“I have yet to have the conversation yet with what potentials, acknowledging that we have budget commitments already in play and depending on how the new collective bargaining agreement works out over the course of time, hopefully sooner than later,” he said.

And so:

MLB may attempt a signing freeze with the start of a lockout, or the marketplace might grind to a halt on its own, even more pronounced than the slowdowns of the 2017-18 and 2018-19 offseasons.

There are a lot of issues to be discussed before any agreement can be made. Beyond the luxury tax, an adjustment to the service time loophole that affected Kris Bryant is important to players, as well as addressing “tanking” and salary arbitration and free agency in general. And then there’s this:

The average major league salary dropped from $4,097,122 in 2017 to $3,881,021 in 2020, before accounting for prorated pay caused by the pandemic, according to the players’ association. Based on this year’s opening-day payrolls, the final figure for 2021 is projected to be about $3.7 million.

Right there is something that’s a major concern to players when the sport is still raking in billions from national TV deals, among other things.

MLB hasn’t had a labor stoppage since the 1994-95 strike wiped out a third of the ‘94 season, that year’s entire postseason including the World Series, and shortened the ‘95 season to 144 games. Baseball came close to a strike in 2002, when a deal was reached August 30 just hours before the first scheduled game that day, which happened to be a Cubs/Cardinals afternoon game at Wrigley Field. I still remember wondering whether I should go to the ballpark that day and whether they’d play. Obviously they did, not that it mattered to the awful 2002 Cubs, who lost 6-3 that afternoon.

Since then, deals kept labor peace in 2006, 2011 and 2016 before the collective bargaining agreement expired. I don’t think we’re going to be that lucky this time, given what’s in that AP article. Based on what’s written there I think the only chance we have at a 2022 season is if players and owners realize there’s too much money at stake to lose a full season and agree to play one more year under the current CBA to give them more time to make an agreement. I’d put the chances of that at only about 50/50, though.

As always, we await developments.

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The 2022 MLB season...

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    ... will be played as scheduled, 162 games
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