Moments after Freddie Freeman caught the final out of the 2021 World Series, hardcore baseball fans set a countdown clock: 105 days. That was supposed to be the amount of time between the end of the 2021 season and the start of spring training in 2022. In Pennsylvania, where there’s little to celebrate in the baseball world, a groundhog presages the coming of spring. Elsewhere in North America, it’s the phrase “Pitchers and catchers report.”
Now, that’s not actually the start of baseball season; players routinely show up to training camp ahead of schedule, and the first few weeks are largely devoted to fielding drills and human interest stories by beat writers. Games don’t follow until March, and meaningful games aren’t until a month after that. But the date that pitchers and catchers report is an easy one to circle, and it’s the kind of informal mid-February marker that allows fans to hope for an end to the doldrums of midwinter.
As of Tuesday, that date is officially here. The players, not so much.
One month into the offseason, the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association expired. Moments later, the league locked out its unionized workforce. That happened 75 days ago—making this work stoppage, the ninth in MLB history, already the second longest, trailing only the infamous 1994-95 strike.
That strike left a traumatic wound on the sport, such that any talk of labor strife immediately elicits questions about whether said disagreements will imperil the season. We’re not there yet. The COVID-abbreviated 2020 campaign showed that baseball can get by with a training camp of as little as four weeks in a pinch and that the most valuable part of the season is the playoffs. Any season that’s long enough to legitimize a World Series is still worth saving.
As for whether the season will start on time … that’s another question. Over the weekend, MLB issued a 130-page proposal to the union. Procedurally, that keeps talks moving; materially, however, it seems like the two sides are still quite far apart, both on certain philosophical issues and dollar amounts. Commissioner Rob Manfred has thus far avoided saying the season will be delayed, and there’s no reason for him to bite that particular bullet unless he absolutely has to—which would probably be on or around March 1. But at this point, salvaging the planned March 31 Opening Day would require something out of the ordinary.
Even if the season is only delayed or truncated insubstantially, losing games off the calendar is a big deal for a league that used to pride itself on maintaining labor peace (unlike, say, the NHL). The owners, and their majordomo Manfred, have options: They could end this lockout with a phone call and reopen the season at any time if they really wanted to.
In that case, MLB could continue to operate under the terms of the previous CBA, putting the players back to work until the two sides could strike a new deal. There’s recent precedent for this: The 1994-95 strike didn’t end because the league and union agreed to a new CBA. Instead, a federal judge issued an injunction restoring the expired CBA after the league implemented unilateral changes during the work stoppage. (That judge, Sonia Sotomayor, went on to become an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.) It wasn’t until late 1996 that MLB and the MLBPA agreed on a new CBA.
According to reports, though, it’s unlikely that we’ll see a new CBA in the next two weeks—and even less likely that Manfred and his bosses will call off the lockout out of the goodness of their hearts. (I would love to be wrong on this point, but the arc of Manfred’s tenure bends so immutably toward cynicism that it’s hard to be optimistic.) So we wait.
One reason progress is so slow is that the phrase “new CBA” isn’t completely accurate. The league and union aren’t starting with a blank sheet of paper; they’re trying to adapt the existing document into something that suits their interests. This is an evolving structure that has been shaped and beaten as if by a blacksmith for more than 50 years. For the past 25, both sides had been able to agree to a course of evolution without much undue fuss. Now, that living document is no longer fit for purpose.
Here’s the way the system is supposed to work: Players work their way up through the minor leagues, and once they’re in a position to help the big league team win, they get promoted to the majors. For three years, they make the league minimum, maybe a little more. Years four through six, they get paid an escalating percentage of their value, either by agreement with the team or as determined by an arbitrator. Thereafter, players cash in on the open market, and the best and most senior players make up for being underpaid in their early- to mid-20s. (Whether that framework is fair is up for debate, but that’s how it was designed to function.)
In the past decade, however, ownership has perverted the arbitration-to-free-agency timeline. Baseball’s empirical revolution has revealed that players are more productive earlier in their careers than previously realized. So rather than spend money on expensive 30-year-old free agents, teams have loaded up on cheaper 25-year-olds and held players down in the minor leagues longer than necessary to prevent the clock from starting on their salary raises—a practice that is at best a legal gray area, and at worst a violation of the CBA (even if it’s proved difficult to enforce).
As for small-market teams, like the Pirates and Orioles, they’ve realized that the rules designed to protect them—revenue sharing, the competitive balance tax, and the draft—actually allow them to turn a profit without making an effort to win. Thanks to the billions of dollars in annual leaguewide broadcasting revenue, a team can run a rock-bottom payroll, lose 100 games a year, and still come out in the black.
A week ago, Rich Hill outlined the problem to Sean McAdam of Boston Sports Journal: “We’re in a situation where teams get this revenue money, shared throughout the league, but they’re not spending it on players and trying to get better. The fans are paying their hard-earned money to go see a major league product and they’re not getting that in some cases now. That’s not ideal for the industry, and it’s not fair to the fans.”
These ownership practices have heavily damaged free agency, which, to work properly, requires most teams to be making a good-faith effort to win in the near future. Absent that, we get the kind of capital strike that doughnut-holed the offseasons from 2016 to 2019 and the stagnation of wages across the board even as the league set new revenue records every year up until the pandemic. Meanwhile, the average experience of an MLB player, measured in service time, dropped from 4.79 years in 2003 to 3.71 years in 2019. And thanks to repeated ferrying between the minors and majors, the median player made just over the minimum salary in 2019.
Two of the union’s major goals in this cycle are to increase competitiveness and to get younger players paid more and sooner. Competitiveness would come by raising the CBT threshold and reducing revenue sharing in order to counteract the financial incentives that allow certain owners to neglect their on-field product and still profit. Paying young players more would not only alleviate the disconnect between earning power and productivity, but make free agents more attractive by making minimum salary quad-A guys less of a bargain.
It’s not all bad news on this front. MLB has agreed to set aside a bonus pool for exceptional pre-arbitration players, which was one of MLBPA’s requests. But while the union asked for a pot of $100 million in its latest proposal, the league offered $15 million on Saturday. The union’s last proposal would raise the minimum salary to $775,000, but the league countered with a pair of options: one with a $630,000 minimum salary and another that starts at $615,000 for rookies with yearly escalators to $725,000 for third-year players (though the latter proposal would not allow teams to pay pre-arbitration players more than the league minimum). For comparison, over the course of the just-expired CBA, the minimum salary increased from $535,000 to $570,500—basically enough to keep up with inflation—and teams were allowed to pay pre-arbitration players more. (In fact, it was a minor scandal when teams chose not to give substantial raises to their young stars.)
At the start of the lockout, Manfred described the MLBPA’s demands as “collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history,” which seems like an exaggeration at best, considering all the union could ask for but isn’t: a salary floor, shortened free agency timelines, the abolition of the CBT or revenue sharing, and so on. Still, in exchange for this largesse, the league asked for much in return.
Under the outgoing CBA, the tax threshold went up $15 million in total over five years, which isn’t enough to keep up with revenue growth, but it’s not nothing. First-time violators were taxed 20 cents on the dollar, with a progressive structure punishing extreme and repeat violators by as much as 50 percent.
The league’s latest proposal would have the tax threshold start at $214 million for the first two years of the deal (up from $210 million in 2021) and end at $222 million by 2026. Violators would pay 50 cents on the dollar not just on extreme overages, but on every dollar over the limit. In the past four seasons, no more than three teams at a time went over the luxury tax threshold, which means that in any given year at least 90 percent of the league is treating the tax line as a salary cap. Increasing penalties while effectively reducing the cap (relative to inflation and certainly relative to league revenues) could only exacerbate certain owners’ tendencies to prefer a cheap 70-win team to a moderately expensive 95-win team.
The league wants this at a time when legalized gambling is dousing owners in money, and teams are using their stadia as tentpoles for lucrative real estate development. When the Cubs open a sportsbook at Wrigley Field, or the A’s and Braves use new ballparks as a magnet for hundreds of millions of dollars in real estate development, that’s not strictly baseball-related revenue in the same sense as broadcast rights or merchandising. But it’s also money those owners wouldn’t be able to make without baseball. On top of that, the league’s proposal would introduce two other new revenue streams—advertising on uniforms and expanded playoffs—of which the players wouldn’t be guaranteed a cut.
If penalties increase under the CBT/Luxury tax IT DOES NOT MATTER WHAT THE THRESHOLD IS MY GOD. Make the threshold a billion dollars it doesn’t matter. Teams already don’t spend bc they use the current penalties as an excuse not to. Imagine if the penalties got worse. SMH.— Alex Wood (@Awood45) February 12, 2022
If these are just trial balloons—a “nothing ventured, nothing gained” approach to bargaining by ownership before crunch time arrives in the next two weeks—it’s possible we won’t miss much of the season. The numbers from both sides aren’t even in the same proverbial ballpark, but they’re just numbers.
But what if this isn’t just procrastination and brinkmanship? What if the league is making a serious attempt to impose a new financial order?
So far the behavior of Manfred, deputy commissioner Dan Halem, and their bosses indicates that this is no mere bluff. The league took three and a half months to respond to a proposal by the union last season that could have prevented a lockout, and the league walked out of the last-minute December bargaining session in Dallas. More than half of this work stoppage so far has been spent waiting for the league to make a proposal after locking out the players. Meanwhile, Manfred blamed the players for the slow pace of negotiations, saying “phones work two ways,” even though as a labor lawyer he would know that the ball was in his side’s court.
The owners and Manfred, who was happy last week to get up in front of the cameras and see if anyone would buy the idea that sports teams are a worse investment than the stock market, are not doing themselves any favors. Years of nickel-and-diming and the league’s bizarre foot-dragging over reopening the 2020 campaign seem to have radicalized an ordinarily conservative-leaning group of players. Appeals to “the good of the game” or “cooperation” won’t work on the contemporary MLBPA, which has too much evidence that ownership doesn’t care about the former and doesn’t believe in the latter.
Before submitting Saturday’s counterproposal, MLB invited the union to meet with a federal mediator to speed up a deal. This is common practice at the end of a CBA negotiation, when neither side wants the final set of dotted i’s and crossed t’s to derail the entire process. But the union dismissed mediation as premature and a publicity stunt given there are so many core issues still hanging in the balance. Individual players made their displeasure known. MLBPA executive committee member Andrew Miller told ESPN, “We are there and our proposals and desire to meet at the table show that. The league is refusing to counter, the league is the side that has stalled and not been willing or ready to meet.” Other players tweeted messages of support for the MLBPA with the #AtTheTable hashtag, while Marcus Stroman put a little extra mustard on it by referring to the commissioner and the owners as “Manclown and his boys.”
Tensions, suffice it to say, are running high.
If this is a bluff, it’s an extremely convincing one. If it isn’t, it could be months before pitchers and catchers finally report. That’s the danger of brinkmanship—if it fails to bring about the desired result, there is nothing else except the brink.