As MLB lockout threatens late start, union-rep Stripling urges fellow Blue Jays to prep as usual

Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher Ross Stripling throws to a Los Angeles Angels batter during the first inning in the second baseball game of a doubleheader Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Anaheim, Calif. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)

TORONTO – Typically the final days of January are when baseball players start revving up for the year ahead. They would be locking down leases for spring training rentals, hitting their final workouts hard, maybe sneaking in one last tweak to a swing or pitching motion.

“You want get out there Feb. 1, start getting to work with your guys and your coaches, you feel like baseball season's coming and you're fired up,” said Toronto Blue Jays right-hander Ross Stripling. “That's what our bodies are telling us right now.”

Major League Baseball’s lockout of its players, sadly, is delivering a far different message. Not only with the beginning of spring training in a couple of weeks under threat but perhaps also the beginning of the regular season as well.

The MLB Players Association made a significant move during negotiations this week by dropping the demand for a quicker route to free agency and lowering the cut sought in a proposed adjustment to revenue sharing, according to sources. In response, owners withdrew their attempt to limit salary arbitration and accepted the union’s framework on a bonus pool for pre-arbitration eligible players, although there’s a big gap in how much money would be available.

There’s even wider separation on more significant issues – the Competitive Balance Tax, or CBT, minimum salaries, expanded playoffs, to name a few – which is why the clock is very much ticking. The sides planned to talk Friday although another economic proposal wasn’t expected.

“We just need to get the ball rolling. These days are so crucial,” says Stripling, who receives regular updates on negotiations as the Blue Jays’ players-union representative. “We knew the owners would use time against us. The closer you get us to spring training, the more frustrated we're going to get. We're used to not getting paycheques in these months, but now you're talking about maybe taking a second pay cut in three years. We've had to sit back on our side and think, what are we willing to miss time over?

“We’re at that precipice now where it’s like, OK, we are likely to miss games. So let’s dig our feet in and get ready for a fight to make this happen and make the game better,” he continues. “I hope that we can start making some real progress because we want to start on time and play on time. We know what we're fighting for and we know that some things need to change. It’s frustrating for a lot of guys because there’s not a lot of information coming down that's positive.”

To that end, the message Stripling keeps delivering to his teammates through the group chat in which he shares updates is to keep preparing as if everything is going to start as usual, and adjust from there as needed.

The 32-year-old right-hander is running through his typical routine at home in Houston, working out daily with teammates George Springer, Cavan Biggio and other big-leaguers at a local facility, and throwing bullpens at Rice University. If players are still locked out in two-to-three weeks, there are loose plans for live batting practice with Springer, Biggio, Anthony Rendon, Robbie Grossman and Tyler Naquin, akin to a typical spring progression.

Players have prepared for seasons under less than ideal circumstances the past two years, as Summer Camp following the 2020 pandemic shutdown and spring training last year both forced hasty build-ups. Should the lockout force that again this year, a camp could theoretically be shoehorned into roughly 25 days. This means an early March reporting date would offer enough runway to hit the scheduled March 31 opening day.

At least two weeks would also be needed for the completion of free agency, the exchange of arbitration numbers for eligible players and for players to book travel and make living arrangements.

Crazy hectic, but doable.

“You don't use spring training to get in shape anymore, those days are long gone. It’s turned into building up starting pitching,” says Stripling. “You've got to build up your starters to five innings, at least, or else your bullpen is going to get murdered to start the season. If you think about it that way, you need about half the time of a normal spring training."

"We've gotten used to doing a shotgun camp to get ready. I think guys understand that this one's really, really important to show up ready to go because it could be very, very quick. Hopefully the vast majority of us are treating it as if spring training is on time and if it's not, to keep working as if it is. I keep saying it, but once it happens, it's going to be boom, boom, playing real games.”

In the meantime, Stripling is balancing his preparations for the season’s uncertain start with his work as player-union rep. In calls with the other 29 team reps and executive subcommittee leadership of Max Scherzer, Marcus Semien, Andrew Miller and Francisco Lindor, he has “not hit the unmute button on a single call,” listening to understand what’s happened so he can pass along updates “in a smart, intelligent way that makes sense” to his fellow Jays.

When needed, he’s leaned on a pair of former teammates, Semien and Justin Turner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, as well as Kevin Slowey, the union’s director of player service, and Rick Helling, a special assistant whose coverage includes the Blue Jays.

“I've enjoyed it,” says Stripling. “It’s important, man. It really is. This is as big of a collective bargaining agreement as we've had in a long time. Obviously, it's a work stoppage for the first time since the mid-90s, so it's a big deal to get guys fired up and on the same page and making sure that they understand what's going on, what we're fighting for, why we're fighting for it, paving the way for the guys that are going to come after us.”

The Blue Jays are “a young team that is very inquisitive,” adds Stripling. “Every time I send something, I usually get messages back or I’ll get texts individually from certain guys that want more information or want my opinion on certain things. It's fun to have a team that's kind of going through this for the first time and learning.”

They’d rather be focused on playing, of course, working toward a season with the usual resources.

Communications with coaches, the analytics department and strength and training staff have been barred since owners locked the doors Dec. 1. A large group of Blue Jays live in the Dunedin, Fla., area and ordinarily they would have spent all off-season working out at the Player Development Complex if not for lockout

Instead they’re scattered, finding their own way, waiting for word on progress and, eventually, a breakthrough.

“Well, I’m optimistic just for the simple fact that we’re now talking to each other and proposing things back and forth. We literally went six weeks with radio silence,” says Stripling. “Nobody wins in a staring contest and that's all that was happening. At some point, someone has to make some change and that was us. We felt like we made a very good proposal."

"MLB kind of pooh-poohed our proposal … so it wasn't as big a step forward as we hoped. But it's at least getting the ball rolling. Both sides are being stubborn and both sides have a very, very good idea of what they want and as of now, it seems like both are holding firm saying, we're willing to miss games over these issues, which is frustrating for fans, players, everybody. But that's kind of the way it’s leading right now.”

There’s still time for negotiations to take a different path and for the sides and the sport to arrive at a better destination.

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