For the first time in nearly three decades, labor unrest between Major League Baseball’s owners and the players union has postponed the regular rhythms of baseball’s treasured spring. MLB announced Friday that spring training games will not start until March 5 at the earliest and has told the union that regular season games will be postponed, too, unless the two sides agree to a new collective bargaining agreement by Feb. 28.
That means MLB and the players union have a week of in-person meetings to hammer out a deal and avert what Commissioner Rob Manfred recently said would qualify as “a disastrous outcome”: the cancellation of regular season games for labor reasons for the first time since the demoralizing strike of 1994. It is a tight timeline for a process that started months ago; the World Series ended in early November, and the lockout began in early December.
The owners say the players are asking for drastic changes to the existing free agency and compensation framework and have not backed off nearly enough of those demands to make negotiations productive.
The players charge the owners were under no legal obligation to lock them out, and they say they did so to create a sense of urgency around the negotiations before waiting 43 days to reach out again. The union believes owners have made the negotiations too narrow, arbitrarily limiting the topics on which they will even hear proposals, let alone consider them.
So here the players sit, locked out of spring training camps that were supposed to open already, collecting only small checks from the Major League Baseball Players Association’s war chest until baseball begins again.
Privately and publicly, both sides have suggested for years this was coming. Many in the industry worried this would be the most hostile labor clash in a generation after a decade and a half of collective bargaining agreements the union felt tilted the financial balance of power firmly in the owners’ direction.
The union was so dissatisfied with the way those agreements went that it hired a new lead negotiator this time — Bruce Meyer, a veteran of labor clashes with a reputation of relative fearlessness in talks such as these.
The players started outlining their goals for this agreement in vague terms as early as the 2018 All-Star Game at Nationals Park, then again at high-profile gatherings since: The next CBA would need to enforce a commitment to winning on the part of all teams, to pay the younger players producing an increasing share of on-field value commensurate with that production and, of course, encourage more spending on players instead of discouraging it.
All the while, Manfred’s rhetoric and on-field changes implemented unilaterally by his office furthered a sense of mistrust between MLB and its players, and many union members are suspicious of the motives behind MLB proposals that might otherwise be considered concessions.
But while they can’t often agree on what constitutes a concession, both sides will need to make several more of them in the next seven days to keep Opening Day scheduled for March 31. The players, for example, say they need the owners to back off their proposals to double the taxes charged to teams that exceed the competitive balance tax threshold, assuming the sides can even agree on the threshold itself.
The union has proposed a competitive balance tax threshold of roughly $240 million for the 2022 season, which would represent an unprecedented year-to-year jump from $210 million in 2021. Revenue has increased faster than that threshold in recent years, the union argues. A big jump would make up for lost time.
The owners, meanwhile, have raised their proposed number to $214 million in 2021 and $222 million by the fifth year of the deal, about $8 million higher over five years than previous proposals.
The players also wanted to make every player with at least two years of service time eligible for arbitration, as was the case a few generations or so ago, before the union conceded a year in previous negotiations. MLB officials have all but laughed aloud at that proposal, insisting the owners would never approve such a jump in the number of players able to argue for their value rather than be assigned it by major league minimums. So on Thursday, the players suggested that 80 percent of players with two years of service time qualify for arbitration instead.
The owners do seem to agree that as younger players are relied upon for a greater percentage of production, they should be paid a larger share of the revenue than the minimum salaries they currently earn. So they agreed to a union-suggested framework of a pre-arbitration bonus pool that would reward top performers with less than three years of service time. But the players want that pool to consist of $115 million to be disbursed among the top 150 eligible players. The owners’ proposals have maxed out at $15 million for the top 30.
A common sentiment shared by those involved with the negotiations on both sides and by those who have been involved in negotiations past is that once talks become about mere numbers — as opposed to, say, the union’s initial request to change free agency and allow players to test the market after five years not six — a deal is within reach.
In other words, the fact that MLB agreed to implement a draft lottery to prevent annual losers from being guaranteed top picks would suggest the heaviest lifting on that issue may already be done, even though it wants the first three picks determined by the lottery and the players hope for the first eight. Both sides agreed to expand the number of teams in the playoffs if everything holds, but the union has reluctantly agreed to expand to 12 teams, while MLB — whose owners make large portions of their revenue from the postseason — is arguing for 14.
The sides have not whittled these talks down to mere numbers on every issue. The players hope to reduce the amount of revenue sharing between teams so that small-market teams that don’t spend to win cannot simply sit back and collect revenue from those that do. MLB declared this a non-starter, arguing that any reduction in revenue sharing will only make it harder for those teams to compete instead of pushing them to do so.
The sides agreed to implement a universal designated hitter and they seem to agree that owners will be allowed to sell ad space on jerseys in the form of patches and decals, though nothing is official until it is written in a ratified CBA.
And in a rare display of cooperation, the sides have been meeting regularly to hash out the less contentious details of the lengthy CBA, hoping to have the little stuff ready whenever the big stuff is settled. For the first time this offseason, multiple owners plan to be present at in-person negotiations this coming week. For the first time since the lockout began in early December, the sides plan to meet for several consecutive days. For all they cannot agree on, the union and owners finally seem to agree that now — with the season on the brink, with spring training games already lost for the first time in a generation — is the time to make a push.