They say it's 'business as usual,' but MLB GMs know change is on the horizon

·6 min read

CARLSBAD, Calif. — After nearly 30 years of labor peace and five years under the current collective bargaining agreement — and nine years with a 10-team postseason bracket and decades of the general draft structure — baseball is poised for a potentially massive shakeup this offseason in the form of a CBA renegotiation.

The existing CBA expires at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1. In addition to bracing for a likely work stoppage in the form of a lockout if a new deal is not agreed to before then, the sport is on the precipice of what could be an entirely new era of the on-field product. Long-simmering conversations about how the game should evolve — between the lines and on the business side that governs what happens between the lines — could end up as codified rule changes or economic restructuring in the new CBA, however long that takes to hammer out.

The designated hitter may be coming for the National League, the postseason field might be expanding, the draft could be reconfigured to disincentivize tanking, the league has proposed a salary floor and lowered competitive balance tax threshold. Free agency could end up tied to age instead of years of service, arbitration could be altered. Pitch clocks, bigger bases, banning the shift, automated balls and strikes, a pre-tacked baseball could all be in the sport’s near future.

Here’s how nearly every general manager gathered in Carlsbad this week for MLB’s general manager meetings described it from their perspective: “Business as usual.”

Sure. And if you believe that …

Of course, the question that preceded the regurgitation of a uniform stonewalling about anything CBA-related matters to how evasive that response really is. Even as the league and the MLB Players Association met multiple times this week in Carlsbad for in-person negotiations — at a nearby hotel and at the same resort where the GM meetings are being held — the front office executives do not have a seat at the bargaining table.

The GMs and presidents of baseball operations are puzzle solvers, tasked with sussing out market inefficiencies and optimizing every crevice of the labyrinthian roster rules. The CBA is the framework of that puzzle, the playground within which GMs try to best each other through a superior and infinitesimally precise interpretation of how to leverage the existing system. Their jobs are not prescriptive of the CBA, but rather reactive to it.

CINCINNATI, OHIO - AUGUST 30: A detail view of a MLB logo during the game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds at Great American Ball Park on August 30, 2021 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
MLB's on-field product and economic structure are up for debate this winter as the league and union renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement that governs the sport. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

So when Boston Red Sox chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom says, “I don’t know that it’s all that productive to comment on [potential changes to the CBA] while a negotiation is ongoing,” he’s correct. Especially considering the renewed commitment from more active participants in bargaining to not leak much lately. After public squabbling served primarily to piss off each other in the negotiations around the two COVID-affected seasons, the top representatives for the league and the MLBPA are staying mostly mum so far. (Which means there’s some other explanation for the continued animosity between the two factions.)

And in that case, it’s true that baseball executives, just like everyone else, should endeavor to “focus on what you can control and stay disciplined to it,” as Seattle Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said.

Optimism — another buzzword from the week — is equally valuable in a nonspecific sense. Why not hope for the best? On the big picture of whether a subsequent CBA will ever be established and the sport allowed to continue, the GMs are:

“Optimistic that it's going to be solved,” as Bloom said.

“Optimistic that what we’ve seen over essentially the last three decades will hopefully continue,” Chicago White Sox GM Rick Hahn said, referring to the 26 years without a work stoppage.

“Optimistic that we're going to be able to go about business as usual,” as Dipoto said.

If you take a timeframe out of it, that’s a safe bet. Beyond that, the industry's thinking seems to be that even if a lockout freezes transactions this offseason, a deal could still be done before the scheduled 2022 opening day. Rosters need to be built, then, and even sluggish GM meetings in terms of consummated deals include plenty of conversations with and about potential acquisitions. All of that is business — if not quite as usual.

But that’s not what we asked.

When the 2022 baseball season kicks off — and it will — the game will be meaningfully different. Maybe not to the casual fan who fears seven-inning doubleheaders and gimmicky extra innings (both of those 2020-necessitated quirks are likely to be confined to that forgettable season and hopefully eventually forgotten year). But certainly to the highly competitive group of people responsible for turning those new rules and regulations into new wins and maybe even new ways to win. Asked which of the possible changes would have the biggest impact on what they can control, the GMs reverted back to a now nonsensical reliance on “business as usual.”

Baseball is all about contingencies. That’s why depth is so important and so often rules the later months of the season and postseason. It’s why Houston Astros GM James Click said he is game planning for all possible outcomes with respect to the qualifying offers the team extended to Carlos Correa and Justin Verlander — prepared for all of them, even the fantasy ones in which Correa accepts.

But the various scenarios presented by the inevitably altered CBA?

“I think you can paralyze yourself trying to plan for every single one of them,” Click said.

Dipoto said they’d build their roster “within the parameters of the system we've always worked,” even though those parameters are pretty much guaranteed to change. And when pressed about that fallacy he said they wouldn’t make any assumptions.

Rangers GM Chris Young claimed he’s “not smart enough to prognosticate exactly what they're gonna be,” about the impending changes. And while that’s definitely not true — and his recent experience on the rules side at the commissioner’s office makes him at least as qualified as anyone else compelled to go on the record this week — it speaks to the frustration.

The difference between obfuscation and revelation in this case is surprisingly murky. So much of the conversation this week in Carlsbad circled around the time that will be defined by the lack of a CBA and the impact that could have on offseason moves and the market on either side of a work stoppage. A coordinated effort to essentially “no comment” the negotiations themselves and defer to the current rules until they cease to exist is all that anyone can do right now.

But change is coming. Perhaps the unsettling it will force upon the 30 front offices will be for the best. Change for change’s sake to shake loose innovation in the face of growing homogeneity. But if they’re really not thinking about what that’ll look like yet, they should be.