Unlocked: MLB, players strike labor deal that will enable full 2022 baseball season

After all that, there will be a 2022 baseball season. And while some things will look different — more on that in a minute — the most important things will look the same. Three outs, 30 teams, one trophy, six months and — this is the big one — 162 games.

Nine days after commissioner Rob Manfred canceled opening day and over three months into an owner-implemented lockout, Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association agreed to a new labor contract Thursday afternoon in New York City, ensuring a full season and averting the most catastrophic consequences. Call it the 11th hour or the bottom of the ninth, but after the union successfully called the league’s bluff in the face of several ultimatums, the pressure of an impending season finally forced a mutually tolerable compromise.

“Our union endured the second-longest work stoppage in its history to achieve significant progress in key areas that will improve not just current players’ rights and benefits, but those of generations to come,” MLBPA executive director Tony Clark said in a statement.

“My view is there’s only one win: That’s get an agreement, and we got one,” Manfred said in a news conference as the lockout was lifted.

A frenetic close to the frozen free agency period and a condensed, concurrent spring training can now ensue. And on the other side of those: Opening day on April 7. The two missed series will be made up as doubleheaders in season and three days tacked on to the end of the regular season.

The collective bargaining agreement that will govern owner and players relations for the next five years represents a concerted effort by the union to close some of the loopholes by which teams have suppressed salaries in recent years and wrest a greater portion of the growing economic pie for themselves. The union’s more radical goals targeting the reserve clause and revenue sharing eventually fell off the table as concessions to achieve gains in the form of higher minimum salaries, a new way of compensating high-performing younger players, a draft lottery, a policy to disincentivize service time manipulation, and a luxury tax they can live with.

The more visible changes were not what bogged down the bargaining for months at a time, but the baseball that returns to the field this summer will feature a universal designated hitter and a 12-team postseason. Every team will play every other team each year starting in 2023, with fewer series against division rivals. The new deal also paves the way for the league to implement more changes — including a pitch clock, bigger bases and a ban on certain defensive shifts — as soon as 2023, something Manfred called “maybe most important.”

On the core economic issues that made up the meat of the negotiations, here’s where the deal landed:

  • The minimum major-league salary will rise from $570,500 in 2021 to $700,000 this season, and escalate to $780,000 by the end of the deal.

  • A $50 million bonus pool will be distributed annually to the most productive players who haven’t reached arbitration.

  • A draft lottery — a la the NBA, but with fewer picks involved — for the top six picks will be instituted as part of an effort to discourage tanking.

  • Teams will be eligible for draft pick incentives if they promote top prospects for opening day. And rookies who finish in the top two in Rookie of the Year voting will be credited with a full year of service, regardless of days on the roster.

  • The luxury tax threshold, $210 million in 2021, will start at $230 million this season and grow to $244 million by the end of the CBA. Penalties for the first threshold and subsequent two surcharge levels remain the same as the outgoing CBA. A fourth threshold was added at $60 million above the initial threshold, with higher penalties.

“I hope that the players appreciate that we worked very hard to address the key concerns that they brought,” Manfred said.

MLB team owners and the players struck a deal to end the lockout that will allow for a 162-game season. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
MLB team owners and the players struck a deal to end the lockout that will allow for a 162-game season. (Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Long-awaited reckoning threatened 2022 season

With spring training already postponed, the two sides failed to reach an agreement after nine days of daily bargaining in Jupiter, Florida, ahead of a Feb. 28 deadline MLB had set to start the season on time. By the time they blew past that — and an extension — they had made considerable progress on establishing a framework but were still far apart on the numbers, most notably for the competitive balance tax and a newly created bonus pool for early-career players.

At the time, Manfred said unequivocally that the first two series had been canceled, that the league would not reschedule missed games and that players would not be paid for them. The league cannot decide that unilaterally, though, and the union indicated an unwillingness to agree to any eventual terms that did not include full pay or service.

Back in New York, the two sides met frequently to bridge the gulf, and a new deadline was set: MLB told the union that a deal done Tuesday would allow them to play all 162 games on a modified schedule. In the end, that deadline, too, turned out to be malleable. The sides went back and forth for over 16 hours Tuesday, then hit a roadblock Wednesday with the league’s desire for an international draft emerging as a sticking point. That resulted in a second wave of games being removed from the schedule Wednesday night before the sides ironed out a compromise Thursday morning to delay a final decision on the draft, and the removal of direct pick compensation that MLB had tied to it.

The league made a final proposal to the union Thursday afternoon. That was approved in a 26-12 vote by the players association’s executive subcommittee and team representatives, bringing the monthslong standoff to a conclusion.

This offseason has loomed as a reckoning for efficiency-minded trends that have led to stagnant or declining player salaries since the ratification of the outgoing CBA, signed in 2016 and seen immediately as a clear win for ownership. In the years since, players’ resentment festered, their sense of solidarity strengthened and their war chest grew in preparation for a lengthy fight.

The issues were complicated but revolved around a relatively simple concept: The way that teams operate has changed dramatically, and the way that players are compensated has not.

Savvy exploitation of a CBA that tilted the economic structure of the sport in the league’s favor has seen payrolls shrink as revenues soared in recent years. Heading into these negotiations, the union was seeking redress in several key areas: getting younger players paid more, commensurate with their production; preventing teams from leveraging CBA loopholes to gain an extra season of team control; making it less attractive and justifiable for teams to languish in uncompetitive mediocrity; and reducing restraints on free agency.

In proposals, these goals took form as increases in the major-league minimum salary, a bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, an earlier path to arbitration, an age backstop for free agency, a policy to prevent service time manipulation, a draft lottery, changes to the revenue-sharing system and a significant increase to a luxury tax that has failed to keep pace with industry growth.

In the end, the players dropped their requests related to free agency, arbitration and revenue sharing — all tabbed as “nonstarters” by the league — turning their attention instead to maximizing the dollar figures in other areas.

They were largely successful. In spite of all eight members of the executive subcommittee voting against the deal, an overwhelming majority of the team representatives approved what amounts to significant raises across the board with little leverage beyond their staunch solidarity and negotiating savvy.

After the owners voted to ratify the agreement, Manfred called Clark and expressed a desire for better and more productive communication between his office and the players going forward.

“One of the things that I'm supposed to do is promote a good relationship with our players. I've tried to do that. I have not been successful in that,” Manfred said. “And you know, it's going to be a priority of mine moving forward to try to make good on the commitment that I made to him on the phone.”

They’ll have a few years now to repair whatever new riffs and address whatever new resentment arose during the lockout before it’s time to do this all again.

But first: baseball.