These are the 3 biggest issues that could push MLB into a lockout

Even before the Champagne from the Atlanta Braves’ World Series celebration was dry on the visiting clubhouse carpet at Minute Maid Park, baseball coverage had shifted to focus on the labor landscape. On Dec. 1 at 11:59 p.m. ET, the current collective bargaining agreement that governs the on- and off-field relationship between Major League Baseball and the Players Association expires.

Whether they will reach a new deal before then (they probably won’t) and whether team owners, as represented by the league, institute a lockout if they can’t (they probably will) will determine how cold the hot stove will go this offseason and reflect a longstanding mistrust between the two sides.

Underlying that acrimony is a series of critical issues that will ultimately determine if there is a work stoppage and how long it will last. In the broadest strokes, these are the things they are talking about in these bargaining sessions, what they’re fighting about when they disagree, and what they’ll need to reach a consensus on for the sport to continue.

As always in negotiating a new CBA, it’s important to remember that the two sides represent their own disparate interests — those of the players themselves and the 30 franchise owners. Unfortunately, fans, history, legacy, minor leaguers and the concept of the Good of the Game do not have seats at the table. The process for reaching a compromise is inherently adversarial, and often acrimonious.

Even the wonkiest of tweaks will have an effect on the product people consume. The CBA doesn’t just govern the game, it shapes it explicitly and implicitly. Everything in baseball is always about the CBA, now it’s only about the CBA. So let’s examine what’s ripe for change.

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 06: Agent Scott Boras sits with Washington Nationals Juan Soto, who was wearing a Trea Turner Nationals jersey, cheers in the stands during the MLB National League Wild Card game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Los Angeles Dodgers on October 6, 2021 at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, CA. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Getting players paid earlier

If you want to skip this whole article and just say they’re arguing about money, that would still be pretty accurate. This CBA negotiation — like all CBA negotiations in sports and otherwise — will hinge on the economic component: Employees want to be better compensated, management wants to keep as much revenue as possible.

The catch here is that baseball players are explicitly underpaid for the early portions of their careers that are proving increasingly valuable. The union would like to redress that. The goal: Get their constituents paid commensurate — or closer to it — with their production at the time when they’re most productive.

For the first six* years (more on that in a minute) of a player’s career, he is under team control. He makes the major-league minimum ($570,500 in 2021) at first and is eligible for arbitration after his third season. That process allows players to essentially take their team to court to demand a raise if one is not settled upon amicably. Arbitration cases are based on precedent — in other words, players argue to be paid more based on favorable comparisons to similar players who have gone through the system. They don’t make their market value because they aren’t allowed to test the free market by shopping their services around in search of a better offer.

This coincides with some, if not most or all, of a player’s most productive seasons — especially lately. The game is increasingly dominated by young superstars like Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who followed in the footsteps of Kris Bryant, Mookie Betts and Mike Trout. Over the past five full seasons, players 25 years old and younger have produced 40 star-level seasons (5-plus WAR by Baseball-Reference), while players 29 and older have managed just 29.

Meanwhile, recent years have seen the big payouts that used to be waiting for players who finally reached free agency dry up below the upper echelon. Call it Moneyball or a more sophisticated understanding of the aging curve, or a savvier approach to talent projection, or plain old appreciation for cost efficiency above all else, but the end result is that teams realized en masse they didn’t need to give veterans sizable contracts when they could cobble together similar production from cost-controlled players. A uniform commitment to minimizing payroll and an increasingly homogeneous understanding of a player’s “value” has resulted in functional if not intentional collusion against baseball’s aging middle class.

Younger players are often better, but even if they’re not, they’re cheaper because their salaries are suppressed by the system outlined in the CBA. And so, a priority for the players in this negotiation is not just asking for more money, but rather for that system itself to be altered.

Part of that would be a mechanism for preventing service time manipulation. Because those first six years of a player’s major-league career are so valuable, teams try to stretch them over seven seasons by leaving an especially promising player in the minor leagues just long enough to prevent their first season from counting as a full year of service.

For instance, Bryant didn’t get credited with a full year of service time for his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2015 because the Chicago Cubs left him in the minors just long enough to gain an extra year of his services at a discount. (The union filed a grievance over this, which it lost last year.) A league proposal that purports to address this would move the free agency clock to an age-based system. That proposal set the cutoff for free agency at 29 ½ years old — a boon to players who would otherwise reach it later, but an anchor on the earning potential of top talents who debut young. The union’s proposals have included an age component, but as an either/or with service time.

While the union has proposed moving arbitration up a year, along with raising league minimums, the league proposed a complete overhaul of the arb system that would replace it with an algorithm for determining a player’s salary in the latter years of team control, based on their production but without the opportunity to negotiate.

We’re still far from a resolution on this core economic issue, but when a CBA is eventually reached, expect it to look at least a little different for those crucial early years of a player’s career.

HOUSTON, TEXAS - OCTOBER 26: Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred looks on prior to Game One of the World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park on October 26, 2021 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Commissioner Rob Manfred will lead the MLB delegation negotiating on behalf of team owners as baseball seeks to shape its next five years. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Tanking and competitive balance

Last week at the GM meetings in Carlsbad, California, uber-agent Scott Boras condemned the baseball landscape in which, he estimated, only 17 teams are even really trying to win, calling out MLB’s “competitive cancer.”

And while he blamed this for the Braves’ ability to go from sub-.500 to champion in the span of the second half of the season, a better exemplar would be teams like the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, who tanked their way to World Series wins by stockpiling top prospects via the draft.

The draft, which awards bad teams with top picks, inherently incentivizes losing when winning seems too difficult or too expensive. Boras specifically called out changes to the draft — adding a cap on spending and making it less likely that a team accrues draft picks by losing free agents — that were made as part of the 2012 CBA.

“It created an incentive for the race to the bottom,” he said.

He’s not wrong.

Not trying to win means not bothering to spend on top talent in the offseason — which is bad for Boras, who happens to represent five of the eight members of the union’s executive subcommittee; bad for players, who see salaries across the board suppressed by a lack of competition; and bad for fans, who are left to watch their teams complete 162-game slogs toward sub-mediocrity in a slavish quest for “sustainability.”

Changing the draft would obviously change the incentive, and so far both the league and the union have made proposals for a new ordering system that doesn’t indefinitely reward poor performance. They both target recidivism, repeat offenders of finishing at the bottom of the standings for the sake of selecting at the top of the daft, but the union’s proposal is more complex.

In the spirit of creating more competitive balance — or, at least, ostensibly so — the league proposed a soft salary floor to go with a lowered luxury tax threshold in August. This would force payrolls closer together and ideally level the playing field across big and small markets, but remains a non-starter for the union, which is ideologically committed to keeping the market as free as possible.

MLB’s existing revenue sharing system is supposed to aid in bridging the gap between big- and small-market teams. But the union has long harbored concerns that the money received is not being reinvested in the on-field product, filing multiple grievances against small-market teams with even smaller payrolls, and it's proposed several different potential tweaks to revenue sharing during this negotiation.

Future of the on-field product

You might want to think that when the most powerful people in the sport commune to talk about the next five years, they’ll focus on style of play. But the truth is the aforementioned economic matters will determine when and if we get an agreement. Baseball, as they say, is a business.

But the game itself will get some attention this offseason as the CBA negotiation provides a forum for enacting rule changes designed to address aesthetic concerns. Commissioner Rob Manfred has the authority to implement rule changes unilaterally provided he gives a full year’s notice, but prefers to operate with player sign-off. Potential rule changes have been the subject of live experiments in the minors, the Atlantic League, and the Arizona Fall League, and the results and feedback from those tests should inform some of what the league tries to push through.

First, though, the industry assumption is that a new CBA will include a designated hitter in the National League after that was implemented for the first time in 2020.

Another quirk of 2020 that functioned as imperfect foreshadowing: an expanded postseason. Currently 10 teams advance to October. The 2020 season featured a 16-team field that attempted to compensate for a 60-game season. But going forward, the postseason could include 14 teams total, with rewards built in for finishing atop a division. The union has expressed concern that a lower playoff threshold will erode the importance of the regular season and let teams settle for fewer wins and less talented (read: cheaper) rosters. The league maintains that giving middling teams something to strive for will, in fact, enhance summer competition and that incentives in the system will keep division races meaningful.

So far in these negotiations, the league has made presentations about the potential rule changes but not put forth any formal proposals. The parties could, however, reach an agreement without including on-field tweaks and still discuss rule changes outside the context of CBA bargaining.

Of the many possible changes the league has tested — which include bigger bases, a limit on pitcher pickoff attempts, positioning restrictions that amount to a ban on shifts, moving the pitching rubber back a foot, automated balls and strikes, and a pitch clock — the pitch clock is the most likely to be implemented imminently. Reports from league sources who saw the 15-second pitch clock in action this past season were overwhelmingly positive about its ability to elegantly address some of the pace-of-play issues that have plagued the sport in recent years.