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A few thoughts on where MLB owners and the MLBPA stand going into weekend talks

The lockout continues. Could it end soon? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

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Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Having now had nearly 24 hours to ruminate over MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s news conference Thursday announcing that there was no change in the status of Spring Training and that owners and players would “discuss the calendar” when they met to negotiate Saturday, I was struck in particular by one apparent change in ownership’s position.

On January 24, Evan Drellich of The Athletic wrote this:

In a meeting with the Players Association on Monday, Major League Baseball deputy commissioner Dan Halem said that MLB is willing to lose games over some of the outstanding issues the sides have, people with knowledge of the talks said. Whether Halem was issuing a threat, or merely providing a statement of the obvious — the owners did start a lockout, after all, and there’s been no agreement since, so what else would happen if there’s no movement? — depends on whom you ask. Some on the players’ side indeed thought it was notable that Halem would verbalize the possibility of missing games, that it did amount to a threat, while the commissioner’s office disagreed.

During Thursday’s news conference, Manfred said:

“I consider missing games as a disastrous outcome for the industry,” Manfred said.

So what changed in 17 days? Was Halem’s statement last month a “threat,” as some players thought, or just more words in a “heated” negotiation session (“heated” is taken directly from the headline of Drellich’s January 24 article)? Was there some change of heart from ownership during their meetings this week in Florida, and was Manfred simply verbalizing that change of heart?

We do know, from Manfred’s talk Thursday, that two issues have been settled, one of them a non-core economic issue, to wit, that the universal DH will be used beginning with the 2022 season, whenever that starts. Some of you won’t be happy about that; others, including myself, will. (With that in mind, here’s the article I wrote last October noting what are now going to be several “lasts” for Cubs pitchers batting.)

The other topic that’s apparently been settled is that there will no longer be draft pick compensation for free-agent signings, as owners offered to eliminate the qualifying-offer system. This is a pretty big deal. What will be a bigger deal is what will replace it, because I can pretty much guarantee you that teams aren’t going to want to lose free agents for nothing. That will be part of the negotiating session Saturday, I am certain, and make no mistake: The two sides are still quite far apart on many issues. Drellich wrote, regarding the chances Spring Training will start on time:

While it is not literally impossible that the sides could reach a deal — one or both sides could wake up and just pull a complete 180 — it is entirely unrealistic. There will be no 180.

So, why wait? MLB and the MLBPA have a meeting Saturday. It’s possible that by waiting until Saturday or later to officially acknowledge that spring will be delayed, Manfred and the owners might be angling for slightly higher ground in the narrative. Something along the lines of, “We made an improved proposal, the players did not want it, and therefore, pitchers and catchers will not report on time.”

That’s kind of how I read Manfred’s statements Thursday, but obviously we won’t know what actually is going to happen until tomorrow.

What are the issues that are keeping the two sides apart? Ben Nicholson-Smith of Canada’s The Sports Network noted these topics on which the two sides could make compromise (and his entire article is worth your time):

  • Added playoffs. MLB owners want 14 teams in the postseason. Players appear willing to go to 12.
  • Advertising on uniforms
  • Having a draft lottery under certain conditions
  • A pool of money for pre-arb players. The parties seem to agree on this, but are far apart on the size of the pool.
  • Service time manipulation. This one seems to be among the biggest concerns for players, but owners and players are far from an agreement on what sort of system would best combat this.
  • Minimum salaries. Both sides seem to agree they should go up, but so far, owners have only offered a modest increase.
  • Revenue sharing. The players’ biggest beef — and I find it legitimate — is that some small-market teams have received revenue-sharing funds from wealthier clubs and not spent it on payroll.
  • The competitive balance tax (or “luxury tax” as it’s more commonly known). Owners have proposed a tiny increase in this level (from $210 million to $214 million), while players are looking for this to increase to $245 million. This is one of the single biggest things that keeps the sport’s revenue increases away from players. These two charts should give you a good idea of a) the increasing gap between revenues and what players are getting, and b) who’s actually paying luxury tax (the Cubs have paid it just once since 2003):

(Note: That tweet’s text should read “2003,” not “2013.”)

The CBT is one of the most contentious parts of these negotiations. It has long been viewed as a de facto salary cap in baseball, and MLB players have been consistently against a hard cap for decades. If owners are only proposing a 2 percent increase in the tax, these talks aren’t going to get very far.

Earlier this month, I wrote that Spring Training would be “chaotic” if a deal between players and owners wasn’t reached soon. Just how chaotic that would be is laid out in this article in The Athletic by Jayson Stark and Ken Rosenthal. Here’s what they say is likely to happen once a deal is reached (and while I called this “chaotic,” the headline on Stark and Rosenthal’s article says it will be “absolute insanity”):

Fangraphs’ Roster Resource free-agent tracker lists 199 major-league players as still unsigned. That group doesn’t merely include players who filed for free agency in November. It also loops in players such as Justin Smoak, who played in Asia last year and wants to return to MLB. But if 199 feels like a massive number, wait until you hear about all the free agents it doesn’t include.

Like Seiya Suzuki, for instance. He’s poised to become the next Japanese free-agent mega-star. So he gets us to 200 unsigned. But wait. There’s more. Many, many more.

Baseball America keeps track of all the minor-league free agents out there. The offseason began with 653 of them. You know how many are still hunting for a new team? How about 424!

So if you’re adding along at home, you’re getting the idea. It’s February — and there are still more than 600 unsigned free agents. Right, 600. Think they’re all going to get signed in the week or 10 days between a labor agreement and the start of camp? If you do, we have a lovely 8-by-10 glossy photo of Don Fehr we’d like to sell you.

“When this thing ends,” said one agent, “the first thing owners will say is, “We have no money.” So the top 10 percent will get signed. Then it will be a bloodbath.”

Another agent’s prediction: “You’ll see more guys take minor-league deals than in any year in the history of baseball. I wonder how many guys take one-year deals just to get some kind of guaranteed deal, and say, ‘I’ll deal with this next year.’”

I suppose this could be good for some teams, in that they might be able to get a player’s services for a year at a below-market rate because of the time crunch. There’s a lot more in Stark and Rosenthal’s article and I suggest you read it all to get an idea of where we’re headed when a deal is reached.

Did I say “when”? Eventually, there has to be an agreement between MLB and the MLBPA, right? They’re not going to let an entire season be cancelled, like the NHL did a decade and a half ago, right?

I would certainly hope not. Manfred tried to strike a somewhat conciliatory tone in his news conference Thursday, though I am not sure he succeeded.

The parties will meet tomorrow, February 12. Four days later pitchers and catchers are supposed to report to spring camps, and 10 days after that the first MLB spring games are scheduled. In the Athletic article I linked above quoting Manfred about missing games, Evan Drellich wrote, in response to the question “Is there still a path to an on-time spring training?”:

No. It’s still possible to have an on-time start to the regular season, although that window is getting tighter. But a full, standard six to seven weeks of spring training is out the window.

I suppose we’ll know more late tomorrow. As always, we await developments.

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