Major League Baseball Collective Bargaining Will Come Down to the Wire

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With a little more than two months remaining to the Dec. 1 expiration date of the current five-year Basic Agreement, it appears Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association are going down to the wire to reach a deal.

One agent believes negotiations could go well beyond that date toward spring training in February, which means a lockout by the owners is still a real possibility.

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Others think there’s ample time for the two sides to reconcile their differences, although major economic issues have yet to be settled. The union made its first economic proposal in April, and the owners didn’t respond for four months. Both proposals were non-starters to the other side.

There would be no purpose for the players to strike without a deal because they don’t get paid during the offseason.

“It doesn’t matter whether we go on strike or they lock us out,” Max Scherzer told Sportico this past weekend at Dodger Stadium. “It’s just semantics. However you want to characterize it doesn’t matter. There would be no baseball under that scenario.”

Scherzer, the Los Angeles Dodgers right-hander who this past Sunday became the 19th pitcher in MLB history to pass the 3,000 strikeout plateau, has been a long-time National League rep in the union and is familiar with the progress—or lack thereof—in the current talks.

MLB, trying to address the issue of owners manipulating service time, floated an age limit for free agency instead of the current six full years of playing in the Major Leagues. Taken on its own merit, that proposal, in a complex matrix of economic changes, could stretch the limit for free agency for some young players far beyond six years.

Service time and competitive balance are two of the big issues the players are attempting to address in these negotiations. Some big- to middle-market teams spend money to try to compete, while others in smaller markets seem to “tank” for higher draft picks.

“Players as a whole are frustrated by the lack of competition around the sport,” Scherzer said. “We definitely want to see changes in that.… When the league has fewer bad teams, when all these games matter, when pennant races are highly competitive, fans are engaged with that.”

To his point, with a little more than two weeks to go, four of the six division races have been decided, and 13 of the 30 teams are not even within 8 1/2 games of the second Wild Card spot in either league.

Citing an agreement for their talks to remain private, MLB and union officials declined to speak on the record about the current state of the negotiations. But the fact is that talks could be curtailed from now to well into October, when the playoffs dominate travel plans.

That would make November the crunch time for getting something done.

The talks are ongoing with more than a dozen sessions, all on video calls.

Manfred has downplayed the possibility of a lockout.

“The best I can say to you is that our No. 1 priority is to get a new agreement without a work stoppage,” Manfred said. “It’s that simple.”

But that comment came on July 13 in Denver at an open forum with the Baseball Writers Association of America just before the All-Star Game, and he hasn’t said anything about the current state of negotiations. Sportico asked this week for such a statement and was turned down.

Since Manfred said last year that owners had suffered about $3 billion in operating revenue losses playing in empty stadiums due to the pandemic, many people doubt the owners will put themselves in a position next year to sustain more operating losses.

There hasn’t been a work stoppage in MLB since 1994, when an August strike wiped out the end of the season, the postseason and the start of the 1995 regular season, as MLB played spring training that year with so-called replacement players. Only a ruling by the National Labor Relations Board that the owners had illegally posted contract conditions ultimately ended the strike and brought parties back to the table.

The last really contentious negotiations were in 2002, when another late-season deadline led to an agreement at the witching hour ,as players waited on buses to determine whether games would be played that day. A last-minute deal was struck, and the remainder of the season was played.

Since then, the expiration date for the contract has been moved to the off-season, effectively taking the weapon of a strike away from the union. Though subsequent contracts have gone down to the wire, there has been little acrimony.

Even this year’s talks have been free of rancor because of the media blackout, but ill feelings remain among the players after the owners tried last year to negotiate further monetary concessions to play a COVID-abbreviated 60-game season.

The players had agreed to be paid a prorated amount of their contracts for each game played, and wanted a longer season. The owners refused to play more games without further concessions. When Manfred implemented the 60-game season based on his ability to open the contract during a state of emergency, players lost 67% value of their pay based on the full 162-game schedule.

This year, the owners wanted to push back the start of the season again until full capacity at ballparks could be reached as municipalities eased health and safety protocols. But the players insisted on being paid for a 162-game season. It opened at limited capacity in most places and didn’t get back to normal until June.

The owners will certainly lose more operating revenue because of it, although according to Sportico, franchise values continue to escalate.

Some believe the owners again are trying to test the union’s resolve by the slow pace of negotiations and perhaps even a lockout. But that has been a failed strategy forever in baseball negotiations and will fail again now, Scherzer said.

“The reason I say that is just look at last year,” he said. “They wanted to pick a fight during COVID, and we were ready for a fight. We handled that fight extremely well from the players’ side. We got a little taste of what it’s like to be in true negotiations. We have to reach 1,200 players. Our communication system from top to bottom is excellent. If we have to be in that situation again I’m confident we can handle it.”

The fact that a player with Scherzer’s stature is so involved tells management all it needs to know. Scherzer is at the end of a seven-year, $210 million contract he signed with the Washington Nationals. Because of his pending free agency at the end of the World Series, the 37-year-old star was traded to the Dodgers, along with infielder Trea Turner, at the July 30 deadline.

If there’s a lockout, all signings of free agents will cease until a new deal is done. That would give pending free agents about a month to sign a new deal with their current or a new club at the same time labor negotiators are attempting to conclude collective bargaining by Dec. 1.

“I try to remain optimistic,” Scherzer said. “Baseball is a great game. The fans who support this game are who I have my eyes on. If they’re going to pay their hard-earned money to see us play, I want to make sure that the league is the most competitive version it can be.”