After 'heated' meeting, MLB and players have lots of work ahead

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Ken Reid catch up to discuss the MLB lockout, what key issues are holding negotiations back, and if spring training is a possible target start date.

TORONTO -- After a 90-minute meeting that one source described as ‘heated,’ MLB players and owners aren’t much closer to resolving the lockout that now seems likely to delay the scheduled start of spring training.

Players presented owners with a proposal including two notable updates Tuesday afternoon, making modest concessions in both instances, but the sides aren’t close to an agreement following a bargaining session in which players were vocal about their frustration at a lockout now entering its third month.

Talks will resume in New York Wednesday on non-core issues along the lines of scheduling and grievance procedures, but more contentious questions remain unresolved. Under the circumstances, it’s becoming less likely that players will report to spring training when it’s officially scheduled to begin on Feb. 16.

Even once an agreement is reached, players will need time to cross borders, travel to spring facilities and get settled in temporary residences. Teams still have substantial off-season business to complete with prominent free agents like Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant and Trevor Story still unsigned, so agents expect a flurry of activity once the lockout ends. First, some more patience may be required.

After locking out the players, the owners waited 42 days before making their first proposal, leading many within the industry to believe the owners are using the calendar as a way to impose pressure. But since the approach of spring training hasn’t compelled the players to cave, the sides continue moving slowly.

On Tuesday, the players proposed a bonus pool for pre-arbitration eligible players of $100 million, down from $105 million in their previous offer. The owners, meanwhile, have offered a total of $10 million for high-achieving early-career players to share.

The players also ceded some ground on a plan designed to limit the manipulation of service time. The MLBPA would like to see the league’s best-performing rookies obtain a full year of service time even if they don’t spend 172 days in the majors, but Tuesday’s proposal raised the bar for obtaining that extra service, meaning fewer players would reach it (according to Evan Drellich of The Athletic, both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference WAR would be used to determine which rookies qualify). So far, MLB has resisted these attempts to secure ‘bonus’ service time.

All told, then, there wasn’t substantive momentum after Tuesday’s talks. That could change quickly -- or talks could continue developing slowly. When 30 owners and 1,200 players have a say, making any predictions can be unwise. From here, owners are expected to regroup and make another proposal on core economic issues, potentially as soon as this week.

For talks to develop in a meaningful way, these are two major areas that will have to be addressed:

• Raised MLB minimums are a priority for players considering that the player pool is trending younger. So far MLB has offered a $615,000 minimum for 2022 while players seek $775,000.

• Movement on competitive balance tax penalties and thresholds would also represent real progress. The question of who gets penalized when and for how much is central to these talks and the issue has yet to be bridged.

MLB seeks an expanded playoff field of 14 teams, ads on uniform patches and helmet decals and a universal designated hitter, among other things. One of the 30 MLB teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, is owned by Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet.

Conversely, the players seek better compensation for younger players, eight lottery picks to dissuade clubs from tanking and eased restrictions on team spending.

Extended quiet periods are not unprecedented in baseball work stoppages -- the 1981 strike lasted 51 days while the 1994-95 strike lasted 232 days and led to the cancellation of the 1994 World Series. Eventually the sides will reach an agreement over the current issues, too. Still, with each bargaining session that passes without substantive movement, valuable time on the calendar disappears.

With that said, it’s possible Tuesday’s venting will lead somewhere and the next round of talks will move things along in a meaningful way. At some point, these incremental gains will have to become more substantive.

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