TORONTO -- Mid-February is normally a time of optimism on the baseball calendar. Under ordinary circumstances, pitchers and catchers would soon be arriving full of hope to spring training. And why wouldn’t they? Before the season begins, anything is possible.
This year, that same optimism is hard to find. Spring training camps will open late as MLB owners continue to lock out players. How late is harder to say. The league waited six weeks before making its first proposal and declined to counter the players’ recent offer, so there’s been little apparent urgency from that side of the table. As such, there are valid reasons for pessimism. On Thursday, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred called the possibility of missed regular season games a ‘disastrous outcome’, but with each passing week, valuable time disappears and pressure builds.
Even so, it would be inaccurate to say there’s been zero movement. There are some areas where MLB’s owners and players have indicated a willingness to cede ground to one another. And by and large the sides are speaking the same language now, if nothing else. That doesn’t mean they’re close to an agreement ahead of Saturday’s scheduled bargaining session. They aren’t. It doesn’t mean they’ll agree to a new CBA in time to play a full season. No guarantees there, either.
“You’re always one breakthrough away,” Manfred told reporters from Orlando, Fla., on Thursday. “That’s the art of this process.”
So far, that breakthrough has been elusive, but Saturday’s proposal has a chance to change that if the owners are willing to compromise. To better understand where things stand and what’s ahead, let’s look more closely at who has given ground to whom and where further compromises must happen before an agreement is finally within reach:
Speaking at the owners’ meetings on Thursday morning, Manfred said there’s agreement in place on two significant issues:
• Adding a universal DH: By adding the designated hitter to both leagues, the overall product should improve with more competitive at bats. Plus, some bat-first players can now extend their careers longer.
• Eliminating the qualifying offer system: Some on the players side would argue that as long as free agents were tied to draft pick compensation, they weren’t truly free. Now the owners are willing to take the qualifying offer system off the table, a significant concession considering draft pick compensation was a major strike issue in 1981 that has remained a sticking point for players ever since.
Available concessions from the MLBPA
The players initially hoped to create an earlier path to free agency, but they moved off that request last month. Does that count as a concession? It’s probably more accurate to say the players removed that ask from their wish list, but it did nudge talks along. Beyond that, the players have indicated a willingness to consider:
• Adding playoff teams: Additional playoff teams mean additional playoff rounds, allowing the league to sell more broadcast rights to premium games. Players remain open to expanding to 12 or even 14 playoff teams, and most in the industry now expect an expanded field as soon as 2022. While the league would argue added playoff teams also benefit players, MLB appears to be driving this issue with players also open to movement. (Editor’s Note: One of the 30 MLB teams, the Toronto Blue Jays, is owned by Rogers Communications Inc., which also owns Sportsnet.)
• Adding uniform and helmet ads: Owners seek the ability to monetize ads on uniforms and helmets.
Available concessions from MLB
While the players seek major changes after a collective agreement that tilted toward the owners for the last five years, the league is more content with the status quo. Still, MLB’s owners have shown a willingness to move on some issues that matter to players, including:
• Adding draft lottery picks: Just as owners would argue expanded playoffs benefit players, players would argue a draft lottery benefits the game as a whole by adding competitive integrity. Players want to eliminate tanking, and implementing a draft lottery is one way to dissuade teams from bottoming out. Already, the owners have incorporated a draft lottery into their proposals. Now it’s a question of how many picks would be determined by lottery: three, as the owners have suggested, or eight as the players proposed.
• Creating a pool of money for pre-arbitration eligible players: Yes, there’s a massive gap between the $100-million pool the players seek and the $10 million the owners have offered. At the same time, there’s been at least some movement on this front.
• Addressing service time manipulation: Everyone wins if the best players are on big-league rosters, but players are the ones driving this issue. Owners, meanwhile, have proposed some incentives for teams to break camp with the best rosters. At this poin,t the exact method is up for discussion with WAR, awards voting and draft picks all being considered. The challenge here: coming up with a fair and tidy solution that doesn’t create all kinds of unintended consequences.
Major issues remaining
But helmet ads are one thing. Finding common ground on the competitive balance tax is another. For talks to develop in a meaningful way, some significant areas must still be addressed:
• Raising MLB minimum salaries: Since the player pool is trending younger, this is a priority for players. So far, MLB has offered a $615,000 minimum for 2022 — a modest increase that would also flatten salaries for first-year players — while the MLBPA seeks $775,000.
• Determining a plan for revenue sharing: Owners appear set on keeping the status quo, but players have pushed to reduce revenue sharing, allowing big-market clubs to keep more cash and — in theory — spend more on top free agents.
• Finding fair competitive balance tax penalties and thresholds: The question of who gets penalized when and for how much is central to these talks yet the issue has yet to be bridged. The competitive balance tax threshold was $210 million in 2021, and MLB proposed an increase to $214 million while players seek an increase to $245 million along with a reduction in penalties. Considering how much CBT thresholds and penalties impact league spending as a whole, it’s difficult to envision real momentum towards a deal until there’s common ground here.