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MLB made a labor agreement proposal to players. It didn’t go well

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It won’t be long before part of the 2022 season is in jeopardy.

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Major League Baseball owners and players met Thursday for the first time in over a month, the first meeting to discuss a new labor agreement since owners imposed a lockout December 2.

Here’s the gist of how it went, reported by Jeff Passan and Jesse Rogers at ESPN:

During the sides’ first meeting that discussed core economic issues in 43 days, the league proposed changes to the arbitration system for players with two-plus years of service, tweaked its proposed draft lottery and offered the ability for teams to earn draft picks if top prospects find early success in the major leagues, according to sources.

MLB hoped the proposal would spur discussion with the union after the sides’ failed negotiations leading up to the lockout led to six weeks of inaction. Topics not discussed Thursday that have been in the players’ suite of asks include changes to the competitive-balance tax and raising the minimum salary. While the league indicated before the lockout that it was not open to considering free agency before six years or changes to the current revenue-sharing plan, the union could include both in a counterproposal.

Now, you can say that this is typical posturing and the way labor negotiations go, and in some ways you’re right. But in the case of Major League Baseball, the parties are up against a soft deadline which probably isn’t more than a couple of weeks away. Report dates for pitchers and catchers are generally around February 10 or so, with Spring Training games about two weeks later. In a “normal” year there might even be activity in spring complexes now, with players voluntarily reporting and doing light workouts, which sometimes ramp up by the end of January. That can’t happen until there’s a deal, and given this report by Evan Drellich in The Athletic, that doesn’t appear to be on any nearby horizon:

The bad news was that the players were discouraged by the proposal MLB made, a proposal that avoided some core subjects where the players are hoping to make gains, and in other areas included changes the players felt were insignificant.

No follow-up bargaining session was immediately scheduled as of Thursday afternoon, people with knowledge of the talks said. The union will hold internal discussions on how to respond.

As noted in the ESPN article and hinted by Drellich, the MLBPA could produce a counterproposal. But that takes time. With no further sessions scheduled, we’re likely looking at least a week down the road and perhaps two before the sides talk again. That would bring us to the end of January with absolutely no progress made toward a deal. From Drellich:

MLB did not propose anything new on the competitive balance tax, a crucial issue to players. MLB previously offered to raise the threshold to $214 million and $220 million, a modest increase from the current $210 million figure. In conjunction, the league also wants to increase the penalty for surpassing that first threshold, proposing a 50 percent tax and the surrender of a third-round draft pick, with penalties escalating from there. Those are stronger penalties than are in place now. (MLB in this system would be eliminating the changes in penalties based on how many consecutive years a team finished above the first tier.) Meanwhile, the MLBPA’s most recent proposal included a first tier of $245 million.

That sounds like a pretty wide gap to close. One thing that’s been stated by some is that this deal, like many previous MLB labor agreements, will wind up just “tweaked,” with small incremental change in various areas. The problem with that view, in my opinion, is that it appears to me that neither side wants that sort of thing in 2022, that both owners and players are looking for a deal with significant changes. Players are unhappy about quite a number of things, including tanking, service time and the perception (which is largely true) that players are getting an ever-shrinking part of the MLB revenue pie.

This could be the most consequential labor negotiation in MLB history. Certainly both owners and players have a lot to lose. Let’s hope they realize that and can close the significant gap that is showing between what they both want, and do it soon. As noted by Chelsea Janes in the Washington Post:

Whether the union views MLB’s offer as a genuine step in the right direction and worth countering with a proposal of its own remains to be seen. But MLB has made clear that the onus is now on the union to spur the next phase of negotiations. And with spring training scheduled to start in about a month, time is running out.

Another complicating factor — should a deal get done — would be getting the sides to agree on new coronavirus protocols ahead of spring training. The transaction window will have to be reopened, and teams will need at least a week or two to sign remaining free agents and craft rosters that were, at most, halfway complete when the lockout began.

All of that means the sides probably have about two weeks to agree to a new CBA before spring training is delayed. If spring training is delayed, an on-time Opening Day might be in peril, too: Pitchers, particularly starting pitchers, generally need several weeks to build up stamina ahead of the regular season. Spring training can only be cut short so far before the season would need to be pushed back, too.

Given all this and other things I’ve heard so far, we are at grave risk of losing part — or even all — of the 2022 MLB season. As always, we await developments.