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Is MLB headed for a work stoppage? Key questions before the collective bargaining agreement expires

Judging by how differently the rival sides view baseball’s economics, negotiations might be contentious. Here's what fans need to know.

There are lots of issues to work through this offseason for baseball to avoid a lockout.
There are lots of issues to work through this offseason for baseball to avoid a lockout.Read moreLaurence Kesterson / AP

Now that the World Series is over and the Atlanta Braves have vanquished the Houston Astros to bring the title back to the National League East, it’s time for the main event: Major League Baseball owners vs. players in a showdown that could lead to the sport’s first work stoppage since 1994-95.

The collective bargaining agreement expires at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1, and judging by how differently the rival sides view baseball’s economics and the mutual mistrust between them over the years, negotiations may be contentious. Although next season’s schedule and even spring training aren’t in imminent danger of postponement, free agency and other offseason business could be halted or delayed if a deal isn’t struck within the next month.

“It’s hard to characterize progress,” commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in Houston before Game 1 of the World Series. “Progress is you go in the room, you’re having conversations, people are continuing to talk. The most important point is I know our clubs are 100% committed to the idea that they want an agreement by Dec. 1.”

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Tony Clark, executive director of the MLB Players Association, said he’s “a glass-half-full guy,” while acknowledging “there is a number of issues that we have worked through and some we’re going to continue to work through.”

Here is a primer for the public posturing and elbow-throwing that likely will come over the next few weeks.

What are the biggest issues?

Simply put, the players want a large-scale restructuring of an economic system that disadvantages less-experienced players by requiring three years of major-league service to be eligible for salary arbitration and six for free agency. They also want a larger annual increase in the competitive-balance tax, which reached $210 million this year from $195 million when this CBA took effect for the 2017 season.

The owners are mostly satisfied with the status quo. In August, they reportedly proposed a lower competitive-balance tax ($180 million), with tradeoffs that included a $100 million salary floor, according to The Athletic, and automatic free agency by age 29½, according to the New York Post. Players have long rejected a payroll floor, a concept they believe would lead to a salary cap.

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But the divisions run deeper. The players point to a lack of growth in compensation compared to the owners’ soaring revenues and franchise values. The average major league salary dropped in 2018 and 2019 and is projected to have slipped again this year. Meanwhile, MLB saw record growth in revenues for 17 consecutive years, according to Forbes, topping out at $10.7 billion in 2019. Players cite those figures and contend that the system is broken.

What about expanded playoffs?

The owners favor expanding the playoffs beyond 10 teams (five in each league) because it would bring additional television revenue and further line their coffers. It would mean larger postseason payouts for players, too.

But the players allege that not enough teams are doing all they can to win. Call it “tanking,” if you choose. Clark refers to it as “competitive integrity.” Either way, an expanded field would, in theory, make it easier to qualify for the playoffs and leave teams that weren’t inclined to spend gobs of money even less motivated to do so.

And the universal DH?

The players want this to happen. Some people would even like to tie bringing the designated hitter to the NL with a “double-hook” rule to restore the value of starting pitching. It’s doubtful the owners would stand in the way of a universal DH, but they may view it as a bargaining chip to get something they want more.

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Manfred is hyper-focused on rules changes — from a pitch clock to larger bases — designed to improve the pace of play, add action to games that have grown increasingly static, and enhance the sport’s overall entertainment value. Most players tend to be less obsessed with the length and/or watchability of games, even though it’s directly related to how much money can be stuffed in their pockets.

It’s worth noting that most on-field changes may be carried out without being collectively bargained, although Manfred prefers to do it with the players’ approval.

What if an agreement isn’t in place by Dec. 2?

The owners could impose a lockout. Given that spring training doesn’t begin until mid-February and paychecks aren’t issued in the offseason, it would be a tactical maneuver to apply pressure on the players to make a deal.

But a lockout, or simply the lack of a new CBA outlining the rules of engagement, would freeze transactions, including free agency. If teams don’t know, for instance, what the competitive-balance tax threshold will be, they can’t set their budgets. As Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said, “I’m working under the present system, realizing it may change.”

The annual winter meetings, scheduled for Dec. 6-8 in Orlando, Fla., would be scuttled. Rather than months of rumors about a free-agent class headlined by Kris Bryant, Max Scherzer, Freddie Freeman, and a quintet of star shortstops (Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Marcus Semien, and Javier Báez), Manfred and Clark would dominate the headlines, along with their chief negotiators, MLB deputy commissioner Dan Halem and MLBPA senior director Bruce Meyer.

Mostly, though, it would be another terrible look for the owners and players a year after they bickered over financial issues related to starting the 2020 season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Acrimony from those talks hasn’t faded. The players’ union filed a $500 million grievance against the owners for not agreeing to play more than 60 games and costing them 63% of their salaries. An arbitrator has yet to make a ruling.

Is there any good news?

It’s only Nov. 3. If there’s one thing we know about the owners and players, it’s that they’re motivated by deadlines, so any real progress (or lack thereof) may best be gauged after Thanksgiving.

Also, Clark told reporters that the sides have met, off and on, since the All-Star break, thus far without the leaked emails and other mudslinging through the news media that marred last year’s talks. Maybe the sides will actually keep matters in house this time.