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MLB lockout shows no signs of a thaw after a 15-minute session in Manhattan

With spring training games scheduled to start in a matter of weeks, the locks stayed on facilities like the Angels' in Tempe, Ariz. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)
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NEW YORK — If anyone had wanted to play baseball in Manhattan on Thursday, they would have been able to do so comfortably. It was an unseasonably warm February afternoon, the kind of day just nice enough to remind you of just how welcome the spring thaw will be — and of just how far away it still is.

But for Major League Baseball, mired in a lockout well into its third month, a thaw in labor negotiations between the owners and the players union seems no closer after another brief negotiating session Thursday.

These days, the closest thing to a home game for major league players is a collective bargaining session held at union headquarters instead of at MLB’s offices a few blocks away. That was the setting for Thursday’s session, which lasted just 15 minutes — enough time for the players union to hand over a proposal with a few changes from its previous one, then watch MLB’s negotiating team head back to its offices to mull it over. Spring training games, for which tickets have been sold and fans have planned trips, are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks.

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The length of Thursday’s session — the first the sides held since Saturday — is not necessarily indicative of its productivity, according to people on both sides of the negotiations.

No one expected a deal to be reached Thursday, and the union’s proposal was relatively narrow, according to people familiar with it: The MLBPA dropped its demand for 100 percent of players with two-plus years of service time to qualify for salary arbitration, instead asking for 80 percent of those players to be eligible. It also suggested that the pre-arbitration bonus pool meant to distribute additional money to high-performing young players who do not yet quality for arbitration be set at $115 million and benefit 150 top-performing players, instead of the union’s previous proposal of $100 million to be distributed among 30.

From the union’s perspective, the first move represents a major concession. The players had long argued for arbitration eligibility after two years of service instead of three, which is how the system was set up decades ago. They seemed to believe they had a chance to get it, too.

Instead, the union is effectively moving from a proposal in which all players with two-plus years of service time qualify for arbitration to 80 percent of eligible players — something they argue will cost players millions over the five-year life of a collective bargaining agreement.

From MLB’s perspective, that move is minimal — a rewording rather than a meaningful reworking of an ask the owners were never going to answer in the affirmative. And as for the union’s proposal to increase the number of players who would benefit from a pre-arbitration bonus pool, the owners will see that as a step back, not forward, given that they had been advocating for a far smaller pool ($15 million) to be distributed among far fewer players.

The brevity of Thursday’s negotiating session, then, was more related to the extent of the union’s proposal than any ill will on either side. After the meeting broke up, lead negotiators Dan Halem of MLB and Bruce Meyer of the players union spoke privately for 20 minutes in what one person familiar with the conversation described as a “candid” and not unexpected heart-to-heart.

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What came of that meeting is unclear, as is the timeline for another major negotiation. The sides are scheduled to talk about less heated issues not directly related to the more contentious economic ones Friday, after which the union will expect MLB to offer a counterproposal of its own — perhaps sometime next week.

When it does, the union will almost certainly be focused on the competitive balance tax as a key to quick progress. MLB has proposed to move the competitive balance tax threshold to $214 million in 2022 and to $222 million by the end of the deal, numbers the union argues are far too low, given the rates at which revenue has increased in recent years.

Just as important to the union, according to people familiar with the players’ thinking, are the tax rates imposed on teams that spend over those thresholds. MLB is proposing to double current tax rates, something the players believe will curb free agent spending and effectively create a hard salary cap — the one thing the MLBPA has always been clear it would do anything to avoid.

Until those tax rates come down, until the sides inch closer on the many other issues at play — until negotiating sessions no longer resemble something that could have been an email — baseball’s long winter will endure.

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