Rob Manfred already winning next round of CBA talks with MLBPA

Rob Manfred, commissioner of Major League Baseball, speaks during a news conference. (John Raoux/AP)

That rather elaborate song and dance about rule changes in Major League Baseball last week managed to at least temporarily distract from the fact that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still unsigned, with pitchers and catchers starting to report to Florida and Arizona this week.

Dig deeper, however, and you wonder if it all didn’t make clearer that owners and players aren’t close to being in the same bookstore aisle – let alone reading from the same page – when it comes to the state of the game. If this is the first serious reveal of each side’s focus when the collective bargaining agreement expires in three years … woof.

The Major League Baseball Players Association turtled in its last round of negotiations and failed to fully grasp the subtleties of an agreement that has sped up what was already a growing systemic shift favouring ownership. That wasn’t just a devil in those details; it was an entire labour hell and that’s not good for folks with memories of baseball’s labour wars, because a strong, focussed players association is one of the main reasons the game hasn’t had a lockout or strike since 1993.

Under growing fire, then, executive director Tony Clark and the players attempted to seize the high ground this past week by responding to a management proposal submitted in mid-January aimed at improving pace of play with a series of suggestions geared entirely toward improving competition – an earlier trade deadline to put a greater emphasis on the start of the season (and by extension off-season signings) and to make it harder for teams to back up the truck and make a July decision to tank; increasing service time for young players called up early; and using the draft bonus pool to reward low revenue teams that succeed or penalize teams that tank.

On the surface, the ideas are good. An early trade deadline wouldn’t keep media or fans happy, but that’s a product of fantasy sports thinking: trades are for improving teams in the short, medium or long-term; not to entertain anybody. Wrap it around the expansion of the number of teams eligible for the playoffs, and you’d have tangible movement forward.

The problem is that baseball’s owners like the economics the way they are, and greeted the players’ ideas with the negotiating equivalent of rolled eyeballs, effectively killing a player proposal to put the designated hitter into the National League by saying, simply, that there was too much opposition among NL owners.

So, it’s no surprise that instead of economics, commissioner Rob Manfred’s focus is a 20-second pitch clock and enforcing a three-batter minimum for relief pitchers. The players association seems to have more or less come to terms with the former change, no doubt due to a largely positive reaction to its use in the minors. The three-batter minimum also has less opposition among players than many of us thought, although players would like it trialed in the minors for a year before it’s instituted in the majors. For some of us, forcing pitchers to face a minimum of three batters an inning is as silly as limiting defensive shifts; it’s an unnecessary infringement on the in-game strategy that remains much of the sport’s selling point. It is an egregious over-reach. But if the players go for it…

Manfred tried to portray the week’s news as a cautious staking out of positions, preferring not to celebrate the fact the players already seem to have moved towards his side on most issues, with three years left before bargaining. He’s already winning the next round. Wonder if the players are aware of it.

NOW TWEET THIS

In which we commence praying for the death of the Alliance of American Football… celebrate Travis Dermott as the big winner in the Jake Muzzin trade… love watching the Lakers get screwed over playing their own game… wonder how good the Canadiens would be if they had any clue on the power play.

• Things the world didn’t need: the Alliance of American Football, where you can collect concussions for the pro sports equivalent of a minimum wage #GoAway

• Travis Dermott is playing like he’s the big winner of the Jake Muzzin trade, with 12 shots on goal in six games, a plus-7 and a real sense, playing alongside Ron Hainsey, that he’s made Jake Gardiner expendable #UnintendedConsequences

• Premier League referee Mike Deen didn’t issue a red card Sunday, so we’re still waiting for him to become the first referee in Prem history to give out 100 career reds. Deen, who started in 2000, has handled 473 games #RefShow

• Pretty rich hearing Lakers president Magic Johnson whine about the Pelicans failing to bargain "in good faith" over Anthony Davis, considering how many media acolytes the Lakers have to do their bidding. What rubbish #Turnabout

• How good would the Canadiens be with a power-play? They have the third-fewest goals and the second-worst percentage at 13.5, the separator between them and other teams in a division that includes the Bruins and Lightning, the best PP units in the league. The Leafs might take note, too #NotSpecial

• Remember Ed Davis? The former Raptor is part of the Nets impressive rebuild and the only player in the top three in offensive, defensive and overall rebound percentage. He’s behind only Domantas Sabonis in 10-rebound games off the bench and third in second-chance points #Impact

• Since 1998 only one team, the 2007-08 Capitals, have made the playoffs after being in last place 20 games or more into the season. The Blues (last on Jan. 2), Blackhawks (Jan. 17-19) and Flyers (Jan. 13-14) are all making a run this season #Parity

HANDS UP …

If you thought that Brett Lawrie, who hasn’t played professionally since 2016, would sign a contract before Manny Machado or Bryce Harper. OK, so it’s only a minor-league contract with the Milwaukee Brewers but … still. The 29-year-old Langley, B.C., native, will make $1 million if he gets to the majors this season and he has a bundle of escalators and bonuses.

THE ENDGAME

I know you’re tired of hearing how nice a guy Jonas Valanciunas was and really shouldn’t care about how good any player is with the media but bear with me.

I remember covering Lithuania’s first game at the 2012 Olympics when they were crushed 102-79 by Argentina and Valanciunas, then 20-years-old, the fifth-overall choice in the 2011 draft, was schooled by Luis Scola. Valanciunas, who was to join the Raptors in camp for the first time that fall, went 3-for-4 in 14 minutes, picking up three sloppy fouls and found himself at the centre of a controversy between Lithuanian media and fans – who take this stuff seriously – and his head coach involving playing time.

I’d never spoken to Valanciunas. In fact, the only time I had written about him was a draft night column I wished I’d had back, about how then-Raps GM Bryan Colangelo needed to get over this Euro thing that had foisted Andrea Bargnani on the populace and needed to get some more ‘muricans in here.

Anyhow, I waited patiently for a translator in the mixed zone and instead of risking losing Valanciunas decided to see if we could stumble our way in English. "Yeah, sure, why not?" he asked with that trade-marked wide-eyed look. "I played not my best game, and our coach is coaching to win, not give me playing time," he said. We chatted a bit about Toronto, and he parted with: "See you later, Mr. Toronto reporter."

I’ve been wrong about a guy’s ability to speak the lingo before. I mean, I did stand next to Juan Pierre’s locker when he was with the Rockies after a game in Montreal and ask the Rockies PR director a little too loudly if someone could translate, only to have Pierre say: "I know I’m from Alabama, but I think we’ll make do as long as you don’t ask questions in French. Then, yeah, better get a translator."

I mean … what can I say? I though he was from the Dominican Republic. At any rate, we have all written and said things we’d like to have back, you know? 

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590/The Fan.

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