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Some January thoughts about MLB’s lockout

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There’s no news. And in this case, no news is probably not good news.

Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a while since I wrote here specifically about the lockout MLB owners imposed on players, so it feels like the right time for an update about said lockout, now in day 36.

There’s no news, per this MLB Trade Rumors article, and no scheduled talks between the two sides. That’s because there doesn’t appear to be any sense of urgency. The Cubs’ first Spring Training game is scheduled for Saturday, February 26 against the Dodgers at Sloan Park. That’s seven weeks from this Saturday. Figure about two weeks before that for pitchers and catchers to report, and we’re only five weeks away from that first sign of spring.

The MLBTR article states:

Players aren’t paid for Spring Training, but owners would first face lost revenues at that point. If the work stoppage lingers long enough into Spring Training that regular season games are threatened — at least some form of exhibition play, even if abbreviated, will be required for players to work their way into game shape — then the possibility of lost income for players looms larger. Of course, current free agents (and a few players in DFA limbo) are faced with ongoing employment uncertainty due to the ban on major league transactions.

For now, it doesn’t seem those scenarios are imminent enough to push the parties back to the negotiating table. It does seem, however, that significant progress will have to be made at some point during this month.

Right now, if no lockout existed, we’d probably be on free-agent and trade watch and wondering where some of the bigger name FA would sign if they hadn’t already. If the two sides want things to start on time, the longer they wait to talk, the faster all of these FA are going to have to sign if they want a “normal” season. That could mean crunch time for many of them and the possibility they might have to settle for less money than they want. Maybe that’s what owners want.

On the other hand, per this interview with Max Scherzer in the Los Angeles Times, players are going to stand fast on getting a better agreement and to eliminate (for example) service-time manipulation:

“This negotiation is about the integrity of the game from our eyes. We feel as players that too many teams have gone into a season without any intent to win during this past CBA. Even though that can be a strategy to win in future years, we’ve seen both small-market and large-market clubs embrace tanking, and that cannot be the optimal strategy for the owners.

“As for the service-time manipulation part, there are other forms of it beyond the obvious Kris Bryant example. Teams are putting long-term discounted extensions in front of players before a player even makes his debut. They’re told take the extension and you will be in the big leagues tomorrow but if you don’t sign it you will stay in the minor leagues. Playing in the big leagues is everyone’s dream, and teams are now leveraging that desire to gain financial control over a player’s career. That’s why the Kris Bryant grievance case is so important to all of us players because if it could happen to him, it can happen to anyone.”

Scherzer was also asked about what sort of leverage he thinks players have:

“That’s a hard question to answer or to try to actually gauge. And, for us, the way I conceptualize that question and articulate it back is how does every player feel about this. The young players, the veteran players — and up and down the line, every player I’ve talked to, guys who I work out with, we’re all saying the same thing. We all believe in the same thing. Our message has galvanized us in a way that we understand what we’re fighting for. In terms of leverage … it’s more about in terms of strength of our union, this is the strongest I’ve ever seen the union in terms of the entire group of players being on the same page at the same time.”

Here’s the way I see it. Players like Scherzer who are at the top of the financial chain in baseball don’t have to worry about money. I’m sure he would love to collect the $43 million he’s due in 2022 from the deal he signed with the Mets, but he won’t be hurting for money even if the season is delayed. Presuming the solidarity Scherzer is talking about there is true — and I have no reason to doubt that — players aren’t going to cave to owners’ demands just because the Spring Training schedule is about to begin.

My conclusion? Again, there doesn’t seem to be any sense of urgency. Owners appear to think that the closer things get to actual baseball, that players will simply give in. This is what Manfred said when the lockout was instituted December 1:

I don’t believe that and I’m pretty sure you don’t, either. Manfred and the owners are treading on dangerous ground, in my view. To me, it’s looking less and less likely that the 2022 season starts on time, and if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe ESPN’s Jeff Passan:

Baseball, at the moment, is frighteningly irrelevant. In a normal winter, players would be signing and teams would be making trades, and the promise of pitchers and catchers reporting would provide enough fuel to keep the hot stove lit. Today, there is nothing. MLB’s official website looks like an old GeoCities page, and its TV network is in permanent rerun mode. Pitchers and catchers reporting in mid-February gets less likely by the minute, and after 36 days of silence since the lockout began, there remain no plans for the sides to talk about the core economic issues that cleave them.

Repeat after me: “As always, we await developments.” Which might be several weeks away — at the very least — from coming.