The inevitable has arrived, baseball fans. For a few years now, most people in the sport expected that the impending expiration of the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the players and owners would be the cause of great contention, to the point that a work stoppage was very possible.
To avoid that type of offseason interruption would have required significant concessions from both sides, the type of compromise neither party was likely to agree to until the last possible moment. And the truth is, Dec. 2 is not the last possible moment.
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So at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, MLB’s CBA expired and baseball soon after began its first work stoppage in 26 years. Here’s what you need to know.
Why might there be an MLB lockout?
The nuts and bolts: The Collective Bargaining Agreement formed by MLB owners and the MLB Players’ Association in 2016 had a four-year life, and that expired at 11:59 p.m. ET on Dec. 1. Because that deadline passed without a new agreement, the owners had basically two choices: continue business as usual, under the terms of the expired agreement and continue negotiating with the MLBPA in hopes of reaching a new agreement at some point in the future, or impose a lockdown, creating a sense of urgency for both sides to get a deal hammered out.
“We’ve been down this path,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in mid-November, as reported by The Athletic. “We locked out in ’89-’90. We decided to go down the path (of continuing to negotiate) in 1994. I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody. I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season.”
During the lockdown, no major league free agents can sign and no trades can be made. Players have no access to any sort of team facilities, which is especially troublesome for those rehabbing their way back from serious injuries. Basically, nobody employed by a team in a non-playing capacity can have any sort of communication with players. The free agents who have yet to sign and the players who expect to be traded — lots of A’s and Reds in that mix, especially — are just stuck in limbo. And teams that have pressing roster needs they didn’t address in November — hi, Yankees and Phillies! — can talk amongst themselves all they want about what they might do, but they can’t actually make anything happen.
What the MLBPA wants
Let’s start with a quote from Max Scherzer, the three-time Cy Young winner who is on the MLBPA’s eight-player executive subcommittee, from a piece in The Athletic: “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid, that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”
First, the competition thing: Tanking is a problem. Too many teams in any given year just aren’t trying to win, and not just the all-out tankers. And, to a certain extent, who can blame them? If they strip their roster to the bare bones, not only do they save on payroll — it’s easier to lose 105 games with minimum-salary players — but they’re rewarded with a high draft pick the next season. This acceptance of losing has diminished the market for veteran players who can still contribute. If the goal is only 70 wins, why pay a free-agent $6.5 million a season when a rookie is better for the overall plan at $570,000? So, yeah, players hate tanking.
As for the younger players issue, as it stands now, most players are not eligible for salary arbitration until after their third season and aren’t eligible to become a free agent until after their sixth season. Teams have basically complete control over salaries those first three years, and arbitration is a grinding process, resulting in salaries far below what they’d command on the open market. One obvious solution — one the owners wouldn’t like — is to reduce the amount of time it takes to reach arbitration and free agency.
And there are other things, too. Not only is the MLBPA staunchly anti-salary cap, they want the Competitive Balance Tax (aka the luxury tax) to get a hefty bump closer to the bump that revenues have seen the past five or six years. The practice of service-time manipulation is seedy and underhanded, and the players will advocate for language outlawing that practice.
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What MLB owners want
The owners have “won” the past few rounds of CBA negotiations, most people on both sides will tell you, so their biggest goal is to keep most things on the current path. One of the biggest bullet-point items is expanded playoffs. More playoff teams and more playoff games means more money, both from game-related revenues and larger TV contracts. Owners got a taste of what that might look out during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, even if there were no fans in the stands for ticket and concession sales. Don’t expect anything quite like that year’s 16-team playoff field, but expect the owners to push hard for a 14-team field, or at least a 12-team setup, bumped up from the current 10 teams.
As always, owners want to limit the amount spent on players, but it’s an interesting dynamic between the “richer” teams and the “poorer” franchises. Left to their own devices, some owners will chase their targeted players in free agency, no matter the cost. Owners on the bottom of the spectrum want to keep those other owners from doing that because it prices them out of the best players. Remember the quote from Hall of Famer Tom Glavine in a story earlier this week, about the 1994-’95 strike?
“During the last strike, we never asked for more money. We never asked to be paid for more. We just didn’t want a salary cap,” Glavine said. “Pay us whatever you want to pay us, but we didn’t want to put a system in place that artificially helped owners control themselves in an environment they otherwise wouldn’t.”
What both sides want
Just to show there is a bit of common ground, it’s worth noting that both sides are in favor of adding the designated hitter to the National League on a full-time basis, which is why everyone has long assumed it’ll be a part of this next CBA. And, rest assured, it is. It’s a concept commonly referred to as the Universal DH because baseball loves to make everything sound a bit grander than it actually is (like, y’know, “World” Series even though only North American teams are eligible for that title).
For the National League owners, the idea of replacing pitchers batting with actual hitters is appealing as they look for ways to increase offense — and excitement — to games. Also, the idea of losing a high-priced pitcher to the IL because of an injury suffered while at the plate or running the bases has become an unacceptable scenario.
For the MLBPA, it’s basically adding 15 more jobs for position players. Not every team will employ a full-time DH, of course, but owners will build their rosters in the offseason — and the trade deadline — with the DH as part of the equation.
So why isn’t the Universal DH already here? Because, even though both sides want it, it’s still a negotiation. We had the DH in the NL during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, as a player safety issue. It was absent from 2021 because owners reportedly used it as a bargaining chip. And with this CBA negotiation looming, the players weren’t about to treat it as something only they wanted.
Is there a chance the MLB season could be canceled?
That seems highly unlikely. Though there are many, many issues to be resolved, there does not appear to be anything that would cause the sides to do something stupid (just being candid) like that. In the dispute of 1994, the owners were intent on installing a salary cap and the players flat-out refused. Neither would budge (the agreement was eventually reached without a cap, as you know). There’s nothing like that in this one.
And both sides seem committed to avoiding even a few games lost, much less an entire season. Manfred said as much when speaking to reporters in November, when he talked about the likelihood of enforcing a lockout as soon as the CBA expired. “That’s what it’s about: It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”
When might the lockout end?
This is the more relevant question. Don’t expect a resolution anytime soon. As we talked about earlier this week, the free-agent frenzy in the days leading up to the expiration of the CBA was a pretty clear sign that both sides are prepared to dig in for a long, cold winter. I’d be shocked it if happened before Christmas, and pleasantly surprised if an agreement’s reached before the class of 2022 Hall of Fame voting results are revealed in late January.
Pitchers and catchers are set to report to spring training in mid-February (here’s a countdown!) and for even a shortened spring, a deal would need to be reached by that point or soon after. If this drags into March at all, you’re looking at either a shortened regular-season schedule or a regular-season schedule that’s pushed back from the scheduled March 31 Opening Day.
Look at the 1990 lockout as an example. The CBA expired on Dec. 31, 1989, and owners officially began their lockout on Feb. 15. Finally, on March 19, an agreement was reached. Spring training was dramatically shortened and the season started a week late, on April 9.
A big difference this time around: After all the lost revenue (ticket sales, etc), from 2020’s shortened and fan-less season, you can be sure owners don’t want spring training games wiped away if at all possible.
When was the last MLB work stoppage?
It’s been a minute, hasn’t it? The last work stoppage was the players strike that canceled the 1994 World Series and caused the 1995 season to be shortened to 144 games. That was, by far, the worst incident of labor contention in baseball history, but it’s far from the only one. Here’s a complete rundown of owners-vs-players work stoppages since the first one in 1972.
What’s the difference between a lockout and a strike?
A lockout is ownership saying “you can’t work for us until you agree to a new deal.” A strike is employees (players, in this case) saying “we won’t work for you until you agree to a new deal.”