MLB lockout negotiations turn hostile as owners reject players' comprehensive proposal

JUPITER, Fla. – The deadline set by Major League Baseball to ensure a 162-game season and save the scheduled March 31 opening day is now close enough you could measure the time left to get a deal in hours, not days. If there is no deal by Monday, the league has said that it will start canceling regular season games, and has publicly avowed that those games will not be rescheduled and players will not be paid for them.

So to say it was a bad sign that bargaining ended Saturday with the players contingent still discussing among themselves whether to even bother returning Sunday would be an understatement. Later in the evening, the union told the league that they would, in fact, be back to bargain again, for a seventh straight day, on Sunday.

But the takeaway is still loud and clear: With two days left, they are not close.

On Friday, it had looked like the two sides were approaching a mutually agreeable draft lottery, designed to disincentivize tanking, with multiple counters made on the subject over the course of a long day of bargaining. But as evening approached, the league countered with a proposal that explicitly tied the draft to the players’ sign-off on a 14-team playoff field. An expanded postseason is among the most lucrative items on the owners’ wishlist — worth an estimated $100 million annually, making it a major chip the players would obviously like to trade for something more significant than a rejiggering of the draft.

Negotiations to end the MLB lockout as the owners' deadline to save opening day approaches went poorly on Saturday.  (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Negotiations to end the MLB lockout as the owners' deadline to save opening day approaches went poorly on Saturday. (Photo by James Black/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The sixth straight day of negotiations here began with a lengthy Zoom meeting among all the union player representatives to approve a comprehensive package. The league, which made an expansive proposal earlier in the month, has taken to criticizing the union lately for presenting only piecemeal proposals.

As part of the package, the union moved on several high-profile items.

  • They began these talks asking for all players with two-plus years of service time to be arbitration-eligible. Their latest proposal had that at the top 75% of two-plus players. On Saturday, they reduced that request to 35%. Currently, 22% of two-plus players are awarded arbitration, and MLB has consistently maintained that it won’t go even a single percent higher in these negotiations.

  • On revenue sharing, another item the league has called a non-starter, the union withdrew the portion of the proposal that would reduce the net transfer between teams. They’re still proposing the introduction of an incentive program under which small-market teams could earn additional revenue if they show growth in their local revenue. The players had been proposing that the program be funded by other small-market teams that fail to grow their local revenue — so the system would work as both a punishment and a reward — but changed that to be centrally funded. Teams could still be penalized for failing to grow their local revenue, but the union estimated that no team would lose more than $1 million.

  • The players had previously not made a new competitive balance tax proposal since the lockout began, and the issue has become an increasingly sore subject as it remains unresolved. The league is proposing not only a threshold that the union feels is far too long, but also harsher penalties on any overages, making it essentially more “cap-like.” On Saturday, the players offered a new CBT proposal, coming down on their thresholds by $2 million in years two, three and four of the CBA. That would put the luxury tax at $245 million in 2022, $250 million in 2023, $257 million in 2024, $264 million in 2025, and $273 million in 2026.

Believing they were making a proposal that represented major movement, the union expected a counter of similarly significant concessions.

The league, however, characterized its own counter — on the CBT, at least — as seeing a lousy proposal and responding in kind.

  • In practice, that meant raising their threshold by just $1 million in just one of the CBA’s five years and cutting the taxes on overages by 5% per threshold (the CBT includes an initial threshold, and then two additional thresholds that trigger surcharges). That puts the tax at 45% over the first threshold, 62% over the second, and 95% over the third. After previously removing the draft penalty on the first threshold, the league maintained the draft penalties on the higher thresholds.

  • The league made an ideological concession on service time, agreeing to award a year of service — regardless of time spent in the majors — to the top two Rookie of the Year finishers in each league. That reflects the union’s desire to combat service time manipulation by allowing rookies to earn service through certain achievements. The league maintained its proposal to reward teams that put top prospects on the opening day roster with draft picks if the player goes on to win awards in his first three seasons. The owners’ concession, however, was tied to a new proposal that would allow MLB to implement rule changes after 45 days — previous CBAs have required the commissioner to give the union a full year of notice on any on-field changes — subject to the approval of a committee that would be overwhelmingly staffed with league representatives.

  • After exchanging proposals on the draft all week, the two sides have met in the middle with the top six picks determined by a lottery. But on Saturday, the league doubled down on tying the draft to a 14-team postseason.

  • As part of the package, the league agreed to limit the number of times a player can be optioned to the minors in a single season to five — a part of the players’ earlier proposal.

The league presented this package in a meeting that a source described as very hostile, prompting the players to consider walking away from the table for the time being. Instead, they will bargain again on Sunday in an effort to bridge a canyon-like gap that seems to shrink only inches at a time.

As the players dispersed for the night, executive subcommittee members Max Scherzer and Marcus Semien stopped to sign autographs for a gaggle of particularly dedicated fans.

“Long day,” Scherzer told them.