What to expect this MLB off-season with possible lockout looming

Commissioner Rob Manfred. left, and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, seen here before Game 1 of the World Series, might be talking a lot in the coming days in order to prevent a work stoppage. (AP/file)

TORONTO – You can’t predict baseball, but that doesn’t mean you can’t try. And with a high-stakes off-season upon us, players, agents and executives are attempting to anticipate what’s ahead.

With the 2021 World Series title now Atlanta’s, the hot stove season is next – at least in theory. Yet anyone hoping for a fast-developing winter might want to reset expectations with uncertainty over the sport’s next collective bargaining agreement, which, in the view of many agents and executives, is likely to slow down top free-agent deals.

Technically speaking? Infielders Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javy Baez are all free agents and can sign with any team when the quiet period officially ends in five days. With Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, Robbie Ray, Carlos Rodon, Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman hitting the open market, there’s plenty of high-end pitching talent, too.

In years past, this kind of free-agent class would have led to a steady build-up of activity until the inevitable flurry of transactions at the winter meetings. This year? Unless there’s a new CBA on Dec. 1, many predict the big-league portion of the winter meetings will be cancelled.

Publicly, both MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and MLBPA executive director Tony Clark are optimistic about reaching a new deal. Best-case scenario, in the weeks ahead the sides find common ground on a deal that works for everyone.

But various agents are privately expecting MLB owners to lock players out on Dec. 1, when the current collective bargaining agreement expires. “Seems inevitable,” one player rep said. That would freeze most transactions, including trades and free-agent deals, for an indefinite period.

To be clear, no one I’ve spoken to expects a work stoppage to significantly shorten or erase the 2022 season. Everyone lost revenue during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and even in 2021, revenue was limited because teams played in front of limited-capacity crowds. After two challenging years, there are plenty of incentives for both players and owners to be in business on Opening Day 2022. But few would be surprised if CBA talks drag into the new year, then prompt a rapid-fire flurry of transactional activity before or during spring training.

“A lot of New York lawyers fighting back and forth is not going to end a dispute quickly,” one agent said. “For the sake of the fans, let’s hope cooler heads prevail.”

Still, before the CBA expires, there’s a full month during which teams can theoretically get some real work done. Qualifying offers will proceed as usual, for instance. There’s also an expectation that some smaller free-agent deals could be completed early. And the trade market has a chance to be very active in the month ahead.

Yet the MLB off-season in recent years has generally been unfolding later, and the uncertainty around the CBA likely means that trend will continue. Think about it this way: if a high-payroll team such as the Dodgers, Padres, Red Sox or Yankees is considering a high-priced player, wouldn’t a responsible GM want to understand potential competitive balance tax implications before making a final offer?

Until there’s a new CBA, though, that information is unknowable. Under those circumstances, it’s imaginable that teams could wait, even if more clubs are eventually able to bid after a year of improved revenues. And if that’s the case, a responsible agent might want to wait, too. Why sign before every last bidder has had a chance to make an offer?

Plus, even in a normal year, agent Scott Boras tends to operate slowly, rarely completing major deals in November and more typically waiting until January or February. In a year like this, it’s even harder to imagine many Boras clients signing early, and that group includes prominent free agents Scherzer, Seager and Semien. Even non-Boras clients are impacted when the super-agent waits, as the decisions of top players can slow the entire market.

Of course if most top free agents don’t sign until a new collective agreement is in place, there could be an unprecedented flurry of activity whenever a deal is reached. That would pose its own set of challenges for all involved, especially as executives and agents navigate a new set of rules for the first time.

Until then, don’t be surprised if the market unfolds slowly.

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