MLB lockout drags on over money issues, with no end in sight

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  • Rob Manfred
    Rob Manfred
    10th Commissioner of Major League Baseball

Baseball's players and team owners have now spent more than five weeks trying to turn up the heat on each other. This weekend's subzero wind chill is an appropriate reflection of their success.

MLB's lockout of its players, which Commissioner Rob Manfred said was undertaken on Dec. 2 in hopes that it "will jumpstart the negotiations," has instead frozen the sport in place. No negotiations on the central issues dividing the sport have taken place, none appear currently scheduled, and both sides are instead gambling that their leverage will increase as the calendar ticks away.

Players will grow anxious about finding jobs and missing paychecks, the owners believe. Team officials, already feeling the bite of two revenue-reducing COVID-19 seasons, will feel squeezed, the players' union figures, once they have to start refunding tickets for spring training games and perhaps even the regular season.

In the meantime, teams like the Twins are using the stoppage to fill out their coaching staff, prepare for next week's international signing flurry, and map out a spring workout schedule that might or might not take place. Working hard, in other words, on everything but acquiring players for the 2022 team.

"There may be more uncertainty about this year than a typical offseason," Derek Falvey, Twins president of baseball operations, said in November, "but our job is to prepare for any eventuality."

Despite the current stoppage — MLB's first since the players' strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series — renewed negotiations are an eventuality, too, so it's worth refreshing the issues that divide the two sides and threaten the Twins' March 31 opener against the White Sox in Chicago.

The main issue is the usual one — money — but wrangling over a new collective bargaining agreement has a different tenor this time. That's because MLB owners are largely happy with how the last five-year agreement worked out for them, with revenues climbing at a faster pace than salaries.

Players, on the other hand, would like to correct a handful of trends that they see as inhibiting teams' willingness to pay players what they feel they are worth. The luxury tax, for instance, has in effect established a line that all but the richest teams won't cross, and even they won't pay the penalties it imposes for long. The players seem willing to live with the system, but want the ceiling raised much higher, as much as $25 million more, than the eventual $220 million level owners have proposed.

Little incentive to win

Revenue sharing is another difficult issue, since MLB says its system of subsidizing lower-revenue teams with payments from the biggest earners keeps the sport competitive for all. But the players association argues that those payments discourage high-revenue teams from spending what they can afford on talent.

Worse, the union says, it encourages mediocre teams to shed payroll and go into long rebuilding cycles, fielding inferior (and low-salaried) teams in order to hoard draft picks and build from within. The Pirates, for instance, have finished last in the NL Central for three consecutive seasons, but because they also carried the lowest payroll in baseball in each of those years — and collected more than $50 million each year from MLB's national TV partners, as each team does — they remained profitable and had no incentive to spend on improving the team.

"This negotiation is about the integrity of the game, from our eyes," All-Star pitcher Max Scherzer — a member of the union's executive board who signed a three-year, $130 million free-agent contract with the Mets in November — told the Los Angeles Times. "We feel that too many teams have gone into a season without any intent to win."

MLB in November responded with a proposal to institute a draft lottery for the highest picks, thus reducing the payoff for not trying to compete, but no agreement was reached.

Perhaps the most visible issue, especially after teams rushed to spend more than $1.6 billion on free agents in the weeks leading up to the lockout, is eligibility for free agency, and teams' ability to delay it. Players must have six full seasons of service time before they can market themselves to all 30 teams, but it's easy for front offices to extend that requirement to seven seasons by keeping prospects in the minor leagues for an extra month at some point, preventing them from reaching the necessary number of major league days.

Such service-time manipulation is illegal, but as former Cubs star Kris Bryant discovered by filing (and losing) a grievance over not starting the 2015 season in the majors, nearly impossible to prove. The union proposed allowing players who reach age 29½ with five seasons of service time to become free agents as well, but owners rejected the idea.

Top-heavy salaries

Free agency isn't always a jackpot for players, however, and therein lies one of the thorniest issues for a union that represents both Bryce Harper and Ben Rortvedt. The same front offices that quantified the value of pitch framing and defensive shifts have also developed statistical models that prove that most free agents have already aged past their best seasons, thus reducing their demand. Many teams pay premium salaries to a small handful of their biggest producers, but surround them with minimum-salary players, some of them stars who simply don't have enough seniority to cash in.

The Twins, for instance, used a franchise-record 57 players in 2021, but only five — Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, Miguel Sano, Andrelton Simmons and Michael Pineda — earned $10 million or more, while 39 made less than $1 million. The union seeks to raise substantially the minimum salary, which last year amounted to $570,500, in order to better compensate young players while they are at their most productive.

Expanding the playoffs to more than the current 10 teams is one of the MLB players association's strongest bargaining chips, though the union fears that allowing lesser teams into the postseason will remove incentives for second-tier teams to spend on their rosters in order to qualify.

With so many financial issues to sort out, addressing the sport's on-field issues figures to become a secondary priority, even as pace of play, lack of action and declining offense depresses baseball's appeal. Some MLB owners have suggested the commissioner should have the power to institute rule changes to address those concerns unilaterally, but the union won't bargain away its veto power easily.

Baseball, the sport without a clock, doesn't have a halftime, but if the 2022 season is to go on as scheduled, this needs to be its first. Five weeks have passed without movement from either side. Spring training camps are supposed to open in another five weeks. Here's hoping for a big second-half rally.

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