Shortly after the deadline expired, Commissioner Rob Manfred released a statement via MLB’s Twitter account, one that blamed the players’ union for the lockout and said the players been “unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”
“Regrettably, it appears the Players Association came to the bargaining table with a strategy of confrontation over compromise. They never wavered from collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history,” Manfred wrote.
MLBPA responded in kind moments later, tweeting out a statement blaming the owners for a lockout it said was not necessary but rather initiated “to pressure Players into relinquishing rights and benefits and abandoning good faith bargaining proposals that will benefit not just players, but the game and industry as a whole.”
As much as both sides tried to avoid public bickering, that kind of back-and-forth between the sides has defined relations between MLB and its players for the past few seasons, a period in which players braced for a showdown when the current CBA expired and owners braced for a major union push for change.
MLB’s negotiators and owners gathered this week at a hotel outside of Dallas, meeting with union representatives and a few dozen players. Both sides are said to have adjusted their proposals in recent days, pushing toward compromise more than they have in a year or so of off-and-on dialogue.
But as the clock ticked toward midnight Wednesday, no deal appeared close. The lockout freezes all offseason transactions, halting activity at team facilities amid the first work stoppage in baseball in more than two decades.
“Hearing the tone in negotiations, the lockout seems like that’s a very likely scenario. Let’s say that,” pitcher Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive subcommittee, said midday Wednesday as he spoke on a Zoom news conference for his new deal with the New York Mets.
The owners do not have to force a work stoppage, and in many types of labor negotiations, sides continue to operate as normal without a deal in place. But in professional sports and particularly baseball, lockouts are more prevalent, a practical measure in some ways (rule changes could impact transactions, complicating things for teams making moves without an agreement in place) and a tactical one in others (a lockout is a drastic step that could be read as a warning shot, signaling that owners do not plan to crumble to the players’ demands without a fight).
“This shutdown is a dramatic measure, regardless of the timing. It is not required by law or for any other reason,” the union wrote in its statement. “It was the owners’ choice, plain and simple.”
Manfred, the man charged with representing the owners’ interest in labor negotiations, did not dispute the notion that the owners decided to implement the shutdown. But he suggested they did it to ensure a solution could be reached sooner than later.
“We believe that an offseason lockout is the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season,” he wrote. “We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time.”
In the meantime, the flurry of transactions that have made this November one of the most action-packed in recent baseball history will cease and the story of the offseason will be whittled to billionaire owners fighting against millionaire players.
That there is money in the sport is not in question, particularly after a week in which one team, the Texas Rangers, committed half a billion dollars to two players all by itself, particularly after a week in which two members of the Major League Baseball Players Association executive subcommittee, Scherzer and Marcus Semien, agreed to deals that will pay them more than $300 million combined.
The problem, at least as understood by the union, is that not enough of the game’s revenue returns to the players, a problem those associated with the union say manifests itself in the disparity between the way high-spending teams operate and the way smaller-budget teams often choose not to compete for top talent or on the field.
Among the most glaring issues the union wants to fix: “competitive integrity,” a phrase used by MLBPA executive director Tony Clark to euphemize the process more informally known as tanking, by which small-market teams in self-described rebuilds decide not to field competitive teams, because they will receive higher draft picks based on how low they finish. The result is that many teams will spend top dollar on free agents while others rarely spend at all. Scherzer, for example, will make $43.3 million in 2022, more than the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates are projected to spend on their entire Opening Day payrolls.
“Adjustments have to be made to bring up the competition,” Scherzer said Wednesday. “As players, that’s critical to us to have a highly competitive league, and when we don’t have that, we have issues.”
The union argues that rules should be in place to remove incentives for losing and reward marginal competitive gains. In so doing, they hope not only to create a more consistently competitive on-field product but give more teams reason to spend on an extra veteran player or two instead of relying on young, replacement-level players who just make the minimum.
The players’ motivations in that broad goal are as much financial as they are about the interest of the game: More teams trying to win means more teams willing to spend on free agents means more jobs available for the kind of veteran players who don’t get the big deals such as Scherzer’s and who are instead squeezed out of jobs when teams look to save money instead of spend to win.
The players also believe the system of compensation for younger players ahead of free agency is broken. Currently, teams rely on young stars to provide value before trading them away as they near free agency. The union would like younger players to reach arbitration more quickly (say, after two years instead of three) and eliminate the incentive for teams to manipulate service time to keep players under their control longer.
The union believes that the previous CBA deal — which implemented stricter caps on international spending and more substantial financial penalties for crossing the payroll threshold at which teams must pay a competitive balance tax — slid the balance of financial power firmly into the owners’ favor.
From MLB’s perspective, however, the amount of revenue headed the players’ way these days is not an issue. In fact, MLB representatives argue that because MLB does not have a salary cap like the NFL or NBA, that share is more generous to players than many of their fellow professional athletes.
Owners instead argue that the distribution of money is the problem, meaning that the sides are not completely out-of-sync in their goals of forcing low-payroll teams to spend more consistently. MLB and its representatives are not opposed, in theory, to adjusting the way younger players are compensated or incentivizing competitiveness. In his statement, Manfred insisted the league and its representatives had proposed compromise on those fronts.
“We offered to establish a minimum payroll for all clubs to meet for the first time in baseball history; to allow the majority of players to reach free agency earlier through an age-based system that would eliminate any claims of service time manipulation; and to increase compensation for all young players, including increases in the minimum salary,” Manfred wrote, reiterating aspects of MLB’s proposals confirmed by multiple people familiar with them. He added that MLB offered to increase the competitive balance tax threshold and create a new draft system including a lottery.
But what the owners were unable to do was create a framework that disrupts what the union sees as an owner-friendly status quo. That existing framework was developed over years of player concessions during CBA negotiations, a pattern the union is determined to reverse this winter.
“This drastic and unnecessary measure will not affect the Players’ resolve to reach a fair contract. We remain committed to negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement that enhances competition, improves the product for our fans, and advances the rights and benefits of our membership,” MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark wrote in a statement.
Still, as “drastic” as a lockout may feel and as far apart as it signals the sides remain, the expectation in the industry is that it will not affect the start of spring training or the 2022 season. Missing games because of a labor dispute is generally considered a Rubicon the sport cannot cross again, not after the 1994 playoffs were canceled amid a work stoppage that cost the sport a decade or so of fans and goodwill. Plus, spring training and regular season games bring in revenue, and both parties want as much of that as they can get.