Key questions about the MLB lockout: What each side wants, how long it will last
The scorching hot stove has been put on ice as the business of baseball shuts down. Here's a primer on all your lockout questions.
At the stroke of midnight, as Wednesday turned into Thursday, Major League Baseball’s collective bargaining agreement expired. In the absence of a new deal, the owners voted to approve an expected, if unnecessary, lockout of the players, thereby icing not only a five-alarm hot stove but also an entire $10 billion-plus industry.
OK, so now what?
MLB’s first work stoppage since the 1994-95 strike is a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad look for everyone from commissioner Rob Manfred and the billionaire owners for whom he works to Players’ Association executive director Tony Clark and his constituents. Manfred said as much in a news conference Thursday in Dallas, labeling the lockout “bad for our business.”
But it’s chiefly a negotiating strategy. Spring training is 2½ months away; players aren’t due another paycheck until the season begins. Offseason business could’ve continued under terms of the expired agreement, as it did in 1994. The purpose, though, of a December lockout is to pressure the players into making a deal sooner and to give the owners control over the timing of the bargaining sessions.
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Will it work? Check back.
Meanwhile, there’s a freeze on transactions. Although teams may discuss trades, club employees are prohibited from all contact with major-league players. That includes trainers who were assisting injured players with their rehabs. Players are barred from team facilities. The major-league portion of the winter meetings next week in Orlando, Fla., is canceled. Team officials aren’t allowed to comment on players to the media. MLB.com hastily removed all stories and photos of players on 40-man rosters.
With little else to talk about, get ready for as much chatter as you can stand about “competitive integrity” and “service time” and “revenue sharing” and “expanded playoffs,” among other topics.
Here’s what you need to know about MLB’s labor turmoil.
What do the players want?
A bigger bite of the apple. The average major league salary has dropped 6.4% since 2017, according to the Associated Press. Meanwhile, MLB has seen record revenues, topping out at $10.7 billion in 2019. The players want to level the playing field.
Doing so will require a massive 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. But that isn’t even the players’ biggest gripe.
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The root of the issue, according to many players, is what Max Scherzer described Wednesday as “a competition problem.” Players believe not enough teams are actively trying to win — and therefore not paying big salaries — because the CBA rewards the worst teams with the highest amateur draft picks and the most money to sign them. The number of 95-loss teams rose from three in 2011 and four in 2012 to eight in 2018 and six this year.
“Adjustments have to be made in order to bring out the competition,” Scherzer said in a Zoom call to announce his record contract with the New York Mets. “As players, that’s absolutely critical to us to have a highly competitive league. When we don’t have that, we have issues.”
What do the owners and MLB want?
Two words: expanded playoffs.
The owners proposed a 14-team field, according to the New York Post, after nine seasons with a 10-team format. The move would increase revenues from ticket sales and especially television deals and put more money in everyone’s pocket.
But the players are concerned that granting more teams entry into the postseason would give owners less incentive to spend. If teams can get into the playoffs with 85 wins rather than 90, some may attempt to compete with a lower payroll.
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Manfred is hyper-focused on on-field changes, such as a pitch clock, that will make games more enjoyable to watch. But he said Thursday that those issues are being cast aside for now to keep the focus on economics.
The owners are mostly pleased with the status quo. But given their appetite for expanded playoffs, the players likely will withhold their stamp of approval in return for something substantial, such as a modification of the draft system or free agency based on factors other than service time.
Who will blink first?
Some owners may get antsy the longer they’re unable to sell tickets for next season. But it would seem far more difficult to unify 1,200 players — many of whom don’t stay in the majors long enough to ever cash in on the millions available in free agency — than 30 billionaire owners.
The players stuck together last year in demanding 100% of their salaries for every game they played during the 60-game schedule. And to hear Scherzer tell it, they are resolved to see this through, too, regardless of whether they make $600,000 per year or $43.3 million, his new annual salary from the Mets.
“We’re absolutely committed to doing that,” said Scherzer, who serves on the MLBPA’s executive subcommittee. “When I hear every player, whether young or old, they’re all saying the same thing, clubhouse to clubhouse. It’s not just me that thinks this. It’s everybody. It’s obvious to all the players.”
Scherzer added that the players have been girding for a fight since the ratification of the last CBA, and the union has assembled “a pretty good war chest” over the last five years to assist middle- and lower-tier players in the event that a stoppage drags on.
So, this may take a while?
Yep. Consider the back-and-forth rhetoric as the lockout began.
Manfred accused the players of making an “aggressive set of proposals” that are “bad for competitive balance” because they would make it more difficult for small-market teams to compete. He also claimed the players rejected concessions by the owners to increase young players’ salaries, eliminate draft-pick compensation tied to free agency, create a universal designated hitter, and create a draft lottery similar to the NBA.
“We made a proposal [Wednesday] that, if it had been accepted, I believe would have provided a pretty clear path to make an agreement,” Manfred said.
In a separate news conference Thursday, Clark disagreed with that characterization.
“From the outset, it seems as if the league has been more interested in the appearance of bargaining than bargaining itself,” Clark said.
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So, no, a new agreement won’t be hammered out in a few days, which explains why so many free agents rushed out between Black Friday and Cyber Monday to sign contracts. Teams dished out eight- and nine-figure deals like leftover stuffing and cranberry sauce. The total outlay in November was roughly $1.7 billion.
There’s plenty of time before either side begins to lose money and too many fundamental issues at stake for the future of the sport to rush this process. But if there isn’t a CBA in place before, say, Super Bowl LVI, it’ll be time to activate the DEFCON levels.
How does all this affect the Phillies?
Like every team, the Phillies can’t address 40-man roster needs until the lockout is over. And other than finalizing one-year deals Wednesday night with reliever Corey Knebel and infielder Johan Camargo, they were quiet during this week’s free-agent binge.
“It’s a situation where we had a lot of active talks, but that was it,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “There’s still a long time in the winter.”
There are also plenty of middle-of-the-order hitters left on the free-agent market, from Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant to Nick Castellanos and Michael Conforto. Those players are in a holding pattern now, too. And when the lockout ends, there will be another burst of signings.
The waiting will be the hardest — and for an entire industry, the most painful — part.