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MLB, owners lock out players for first work stoppage in 26 years

Commissioner Rob Manfred says the lockout is “the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season.”

The front gates to Citizens Bank Park.
The front gates to Citizens Bank Park.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / Staff Photographer

Major League Baseball initiated an owner-approved lockout on Thursday as commissioner Rob Manfred said the first work stoppage in 26 years is “the best mechanism to protect the 2022 season” following the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement.

MLB negotiated this week in Texas with the players’ union, but the talks proved fruitless. The lockout started minutes after the CBA expired at midnight and hours after a brief final negotiation between the two parties.

“We are taking this step now because it accelerates the urgency for an agreement with as much runway as possible to avoid doing damage to the 2022 season,” Manfred said in a statement. “Delaying this process further would only put spring training, opening day, and the rest of the season further at risk. And we cannot allow an expired agreement to again cause an in-season strike and a missed World Series, like we experienced in 1994.”

The union said the lockout is “a dramatic measure” that is “specifically calculated to pressure the players into relinquishing rights and benefits.”

» READ MORE: Phillies sign reliever Corey Knebel to one-year contract

The lockout will halt all transactions as rosters will be frozen until a new CBA is agreed upon. Players will not be allowed to use team facilities and clubs will be barred from even speaking publicly about players. The league’s official website went as far as removing any story written about an active player and stripping headshots from player’s statistical pages.

“We hope that the lockout will jumpstart the negotiations and get us to an agreement that will allow the season to start on time,” Manfred said. “This defensive lockout was necessary because the Players Association’s vision for Major League Baseball would threaten the ability of most teams to be competitive. It’s simply not a viable option. From the beginning, the MLBPA has been unwilling to move from their starting position, compromise, or collaborate on solutions.”

The league’s last work stoppage was a players’ strike that canceled the 1994 World Series and the last lockout was a 32-day stoppage in the winter of 1990 that delayed spring training.

Spring training is still more than two months away, allowing time for MLB and the union to come to an agreement without disrupting any preparations for the new season. But optimism will wane the longer the labor dispute drags out. The two parties seem entrenched in their positions, making it possible to imagine this lockout extending into at least the scheduled start of spring training.

“We have a pretty good war chest behind us of money that we can allocate to players who would need it for certain situations,” said new Mets pitcher Max Scherzer, who was at the negotiations in Texas as part of the union’s leadership, of the ability to persuade the players who are not multimillionaires that they can survive an extended work stoppage. “... For the last five years, we’ve been kind of thinking that we would need as big a war chest as possible coming into this.

“Best-case scenario would be to not tap it. Hopefully we can get a deal at some point in time, but as players we are steadfast in our belief of how we see the game.”

The players, unhappy about the outcome of the CBA that was signed in November of 2016, are looking for a bigger cut of MLB’s revenue. The average salary has declined as many franchises have constructed teams with younger and cheaper talent while rebuilding their rosters, making it difficult for veterans and mid-tier players to find a place. Too many teams, the union believes, are not actively trying to build winning clubs.

Manfred said the league offered to establish a minimum payroll for all clubs to meet, to allow the majority of players the ability to reach free agency earlier through an age-based system, and to increase compensation for younger players, including increasing the minimum salary.

The league, Manfred said, was also willing to implement the designated hitter in both the American League and National League, create a new lottery-based draft system, and increase the Competitive Balance Tax threshold.

“We have had challenges before with respect to making labor agreements and have overcome those challenges every single time during my tenure,” Manfred said. “Regrettably, it appears the Players Association came to the bargaining table with a strategy of confrontation over compromise. They never wavered from collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history, including significant cuts to the revenue-sharing system, a weakening of the competitive balance tax, and shortening the period of time that players play for their teams. All of these changes would make our game less competitive, not more.”

Scherzer, who will earn the highest average-annual value for a pitcher at $43.3 million over the three years of his contract, chided teams for viewing the Competitive Balance Tax as a salary cap and refusing to eclipse it. Altering the CBT — and perhaps even eliminating it — is a key point of the negotiations.

The tax is charged to teams that exceed a predetermined payroll threshold. Last year’s threshold was $210 million and teams will be notified this week if they exceeded it. The Phillies have never paid it. The tax penalties begin with a 20% tax on overages and can grow to include the loss of draft selections and international free-agent money.

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“First and foremost, we see a competition problem and how certain teams are behaving because of certain rules that are within that,” Scherzer said. “Adjustments have to be made because of that to bring up the competition. As players, that’s highly critical to us to have a highly competitive league, and when we don’t have that, we have issues.”

This year’s lockout caused an unusual flurry of activity in the last week as some teams rushed to sign free agents. Teams combined Wednesday to spend more than $1 billion on free agents.

The Rangers pledged a combined $500 million to infielders Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, the Mets spent $130 million on Scherzer, and the Tigers signed Javier Baez for $140 million. The Phillies jumped into the fray by signing reliever Corey Knebel on Wednesday afternoon to a one-year deal worth $10 million.

The weeks leading up to the winter meetings, which were scheduled to begin Monday in Orlando, Fla., but will be canceled, are usually slow for player movement. And the movement has crawled at an even slower pace in recent winters. This year, teams were motivated by the deadline of the looming lockout.

» READ MORE: Tax? What tax? Perhaps the Phillies should follow the Mets’ bold strategy

“This was actually kind of fun,” Scherzer said. “I’m a fan of the game and watching everyone sign right now and to see teams actually competing in this timely fashion, it’s been refreshing because we’ve seen free-agent freezes for the last several offseasons. It’s been frustrating as a fan to watch that, like, ‘When are these guys going to sign?’”

After a busy few days, baseball is lining up for a quiet winter. And no one is quite sure how long the silence will last.

“We have something in our rules that creates non-competitiveness,” said agent Scott Boras, who represents Scherzer and many top players, including Bryce Harper. “It creates something that drives down fan interest. All of those things need to be addressed and addressed immediately because the whole integrity of the game needs to be back to where it was where there is an incentive to go to the ballpark and win every day.”