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What to Know about the MLB Lockout

Without a deal by midnight on Thursday, owners will lock out players ending 30 years of labor peace

Brian Young's picture
Dec 01, 2021

At 11:59 PM on December 1st, the current collective bargaining agreement between MLB and the Players Association runs out. When that agreement expires, it is believed that owners will move ahead with a plan to lock players out. This would be the first labor strife in baseball since the 1994-95 strike that led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series and the abbreviation of the 1995 season.

Although both sides have been negotiating the new CBA for months, it is believed that both sides are still far apart on a deal. One of the major issues in reaching a new deal is around players' salaries. Although it might be hard to believe with the Mets just paying Max Scherzer upwards of $40 million a season, salaries have actually gone stagnate as more and more teams are using analytics to reduce players production through things like shifts that lower players batting averages or by pulling pitchers after going twice through the rotation.

Another sticking point is the increase in multi-year tanking where teams sell off their high-priced players and replace them with players making the league minimum. While tanking has always been a part of the game, the multi-year commitment to rebuilding with young players has reduced the number of teams that are actually looking to bring on high-priced veterans. With less demand for their services, this has also decreased the bidding wars that drove up salaries over the past few decades. Another thing that is keeping salaries low is the manipulation of the six-year path to free agency. While both sides have agreed to this in the past, meaning that a player must accrue six years of service time in the league before they can become a free agent, in recent years owners have played games with this provision. This means that owners have intentionally left MLB-ready players in the minors for a month or two at the start of the season before calling them up in May or June. By doing this the player will not qualify for a year of service time and owners are able to gain the seventh year before the player is able to become a free agent.

This system also means that fewer players are getting paid while still in their 20’s which for most players is their prime. Instead, they are hitting free agency in their thirties when the expectation is that they are on the backside of their career making the players less desirable. It is also important to remember that while the union represents about 1,200 players, many of these guys will never gain the six years needed to enter free agency. Instead many of these players will bounce between Triple-A and the majors, sitting on the 40 man roster before being designated for assignment or released.

The Poverty Wages of Minor League Baseball Players

To fix this problem the union has made their position clear that players want bigger paydays earlier in their careers, more competitive integrity, no service time manipulation, and fewer artificial restraints on players via the competitive-balance tax and draft pick compensation.

On the league’s side, the owners have offered a raise to the competitive balance tax to create a $100 million salary floor, but that would then decrease the top from $200 million to $180 million. This means that teams with a team salary lower than $100 million or above $180 million would have to pay a tax. While this could increase salaries on the lower end, it would also likely limit salaries from teams that don’t want to exceed the $180 million tax cap. The league has also proposed ending the direct draft pick compensation which rewards a team with a draft pick if a team tenders a player a one-year qualifying offer. However, if the player rejects the offer and is signed by another team then that team loses their draft pick, making these players less desirable to sign.

Some other issues that the league is pushing include creating an NBA draft-style lottery to disincentivize teams from tanking, implementing a universal designated hitter, and increasing minimum salaries. While the union is likely to like these proposals, others like creating a bonus pool for players with less than three years’ experience and expanding the playoffs have not been met with enthusiasm by the players.  

With time running out to get a new deal done, animosity between the players and the owners may be the biggest thing holding an agreement back. The union feels that in recent years they have been forced to make concessions to the league in an effort to prevent a labor stoppage and to prevent a hard salary cap from being instituted.  However, they realize that this has caused wages to stagnate while owners’ revenues have continued to increase. Yet as we saw during last season negotiations over reopening the league from COVID, the owners who are all worth hundreds of millions of dollars, cried poverty and cried about how much money they would lose if they had to pay full salaries for the 60-game season.

So what happens if the owners decide to lock out the players? A lock-out would shut down all league activities since the owners are basically saying they don’t want the players coming to work. This means that the current free-agent process would freeze and the upcoming winter meetings would be canceled. Players would also be barred from team facilities. While not many players are using these facilities in December, a prolonged lockout would prevent players from working out in the weeks leading up to the season, including a possible delay of Spring Training. However, this will impact players who are rehabbing from injuries. Many of these players often spend their offseason getting in shape at the team spring training facility in Florida or Arizona under the eye of team trainers, but that won’t be allowed during the lockout.

In addition to MLB Players Association President Tony Clark, players that are on the Executive subcommittee for the union have been taking part in the negotiations. The players who are leading the negotiations are Zack Britton, Jason Castro, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Lindor, Andrew Miller, James Paxton, Marcus Semien, and Max Scherzer.

If owners end up locking out the players it would be the fourth one since the union was formed. All of the previous lockouts have ended before the season started avoiding the loss of any games. Thanks to the setup of the CBA ending in December but Spring Training not kicking off until mid-February, both sides have the ability to come together to get a deal done before anyone misses a paycheck or games are canceled.  

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