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‘No change’ to spring training schedule, Rob Manfred says, as MLB lockout drags on

MLB players have been locked out since early December. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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ORLANDO — Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred calls it optimism, that with less than a week until pitchers and catchers are due to report and the sport still mired in a lockout, he has yet to announce that spring training will be delayed.

MLB plans to make an offer to the players union Saturday, he said during a news conference Thursday. Maybe, after months of the sides staring each other down, that offer could help MLB and its players make progress.

But to some, that reluctance to postpone spring training could be characterized as a sort of strategic denial, an attempt to wait until the last possible second to admit that negotiations over a new collective bargaining agreement have devolved to the point that labor unrest has imperiled the regular season for the first time in three decades.

“I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry,” Manfred said. “We’re committed to making an agreement in an effort to avoid it.”

Manfred’s news conference came at the conclusion of the team owners’ meetings, at which people familiar with MLB’s thinking expected them to “regroup” ahead of potential talks with the players union in the future. Major League Baseball Players Association negotiators spent the week meeting with players in Florida and Arizona. At least one of those meetings featured more than 100 players, according to executive subcommittee member Gerrit Cole, the New York Yankees ace.

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Those meetings came as the time before the scheduled start of spring training, which already had dwindled from weeks to days, shrank to a period measurable in hours. Even so, Manfred said there is “no change” to the status of spring training. He said MLB will talk to the union about the calendar, which he admits is hard to ignore.

“Until we see how this [bargaining] session on Saturday goes, there is no change,” Manfred said.

A still-likely spring training delay is not a legal or logistical necessity: MLB chose to lock out its players when the sides failed to reach a new collective bargaining agreement by the time the last one expired in early December, and MLB could end that lockout at any time and allow the season to move forward as planned as the sides continue negotiations.

But in that situation, the players could strike at any moment, pausing the season on their terms. With a lockout underway, the owners are more in control of the work stoppage and, to some extent, the lost revenue that comes with it.

And the owners will begin to lose revenue if the lockout lasts long enough to consume spring training games, which are scheduled to begin Feb. 26. Even if MLB and the players union were to agree to a deal next week — and there is no indication from either side that an agreement could come together that quickly — they may not be able to get players ready in time to play those games as scheduled.

The Post's Chelsea Janes explains what led to the lockout between the MLB players union and team owners, which has already resulted in canceled games. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

As for the games that matter — the 162-game regular season scheduled to begin March 31 — they are no sure thing, either.

MLB and its players not only need to agree to a deal in time to start the regular season but also to give the sides time to ratify the agreement, squeeze in months of offseason transactions and play enough spring training games to avoid injury concerns. Manfred suggested a deal would take a few days to ratify and that four weeks of spring training might be enough. But four weeks of spring training would require an agreement within the next two weeks. It has taken the sides two months to slide a few inches toward each other, and mistrust has only grown in the process.

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For example, when MLB recently requested the help of a federal mediator with the stated goal of moving the process along, the players union rejected the help of a neutral party, viewing the move as MLB’s attempt to garner public goodwill and cast itself as the good-faith negotiator.

But the union argues MLB has had plenty of chances to demonstrate a willingness to negotiate in good faith, including at any point during a 43-day period between the beginning of the lockout and the mid-January day when MLB representatives met with the union to make a proposal.

And several players have taken to social media to rue the fact that last week — after the union offered a narrow counterproposal suggesting changes to evolving plans to curb service-time manipulation and pay younger players more — MLB chose to ask for a mediator instead of making a counterproposal.

“When attempting to negotiate a collectively bargained agreement… ‘bargaining’ is required,” MLBPA executive subcommittee member Zack Britton tweeted.

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“I don’t pay a lot of attention to social media, I’ll be honest with you. I think most of the commentary that’s out there is tactical,” Manfred said Thursday when asked about rebuilding trust with the players. Another reporter began to ask a question, but then Manfred interrupted to return to the subject of trust.

“I really should say one other thing. In the history of baseball, the only person who has made a labor agreement without a dispute — and I did four of them — was me. Somehow, during those four negotiations, players and union representatives figured out a way to trust me enough to make a deal. I’m the same person today as I was in 1998 when I took that labor job.”

That may be true, but hostility between MLB and the union has grown around him in that time, so much so that though he argues the owners have made good-faith concessions and major moves toward the players’ desires — he cited agreeing to a universal designated hitter, agreeing to drop draft pick compensation for free agent signings and agreeing to a draft lottery as examples — the players continue to argue that MLB is touting small proposals as a way to avoid having to make substantial ones.

The players want a higher competitive balance tax threshold than the owners. They also disagree on how steep the penalty should be for exceeding it, penalties Manfred mistakenly said Thursday would remain the same under MLB’s proposals as they were under the previous CBA. (The tax rates, as calculated by the percentage of money spent over the threshold teams owe as a penalty, actually would increase under MLB’s proposal.)

The sides agreed to implement a bonus pool to disburse among young, high-achieving players who have not hit arbitration, but the owners proposed that pool consist of $10 million, while the players want $100 million.

They also have agreed to a framework to incentivize teams to call up top prospects early, rather than leave them in the minors as long as possible to postpone free agency, but they cannot agree on the incentives and whether some players could qualify to accumulate service time through performance-related milestones and what those milestones would be.

As Manfred said, both sides have agreed to the idea of a draft lottery to prevent teams from losing their way to the first pick, but they cannot agree on the number of teams that would qualify for it. Both seem amenable to an expanded postseason, but they differ on how many teams would be included.

The players also hope to reduce the amount of revenue shared among the teams to discourage underperforming clubs from losing and pocketing the money, rather than reinvesting it. MLB has said it will not entertain the notion, arguing that small-market teams would fall even further behind with less revenue sharing.

Any of those issues would qualify as substantial sticking points on their own. Now those involved must decide how much they are willing to lose while sticking to them.

“You’re always one breakthrough away from making an agreement,” Manfred said Thursday, as he has throughout the process. MLB and the union are scheduled to meet Saturday in New York, at which point the owners are scheduled to make another proposal. Perhaps that proposal will start a rally, will be a line drive up the middle of the divide between the sides. At the least, it could put the ball in play.