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MLB lockout: When must a deal be struck to avoid a delayed spring training or regular season?

The economics of baseball aren't the only obstacles to the season starting on time. Here's what is standing in the way.

The Phillies are scheduled to open their spring training schedule on Feb. 26 against the Yankees, but a lot has to happen first.
The Phillies are scheduled to open their spring training schedule on Feb. 26 against the Yankees, but a lot has to happen first.Read moreGene J. Puskar / AP

Never mind the six weeks of radio silence from Major League Baseball, or the lead balloon proposed by the owners last Thursday, or the saber-rattling that is sure to ensue once collective bargaining picks up for real over the next few weeks. Baseball fans, especially those with midwinter vacation plans to Florida or Arizona, really care about one thing.

Will spring training start on time?

Everything else, from arbitration and free-agent eligibility to the luxury tax and revenue sharing, pales in comparison to that singular question — and the one that will inevitably follow: Is the season in jeopardy of being delayed? It’s premature to scrap those spring-training trips entirely, but, well, let’s just say you would be wise to get refundable plane tickets.

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It isn’t merely that MLB owners and players can’t agree on so much as the color of the grass in center field. It’s that there will be so many things to do even after the parties finally hammer out an agreement. And the calendar isn’t slowing down.

Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to camps on or around Feb. 15, with the Phillies set to play their first exhibition game Feb. 26 against the New York Yankees. In 1990, when MLB had its last lockout, an agreement was struck on March 18 and players arrived in camp two days later. This time, unlike then, a couple of hundred players are still free agents, including at least 60 who are expected to sign major-league contracts.

It isn’t unfathomable that spring training could begin before most of those players find new teams. Free agency has bled into spring training in recent years. In 2018, Jake Arrieta signed with the Phillies on March 12. A year later, Bryce Harper agreed to his 13-year, $330 million Phillies deal on Feb. 28, a week after Manny Machado signed a $300 million contract with the San Diego Padres.

But a stray unsigned superstar or two is different than dozens, including Carlos Correa, Freddie Freeman, Trevor Story, Kris Bryant, Clayton Kershaw, Nelson Cruz, Nick Castellanos, Kyle Schwarber, Carlos Rodón, Michael Conforto, Anthony Rizzo, Zack Greinke, Seiya Suzuki, and Kenley Jansen. When the lockout ends, MLB will need to allow time for teams to resume their offseason business rather than swinging open the gates to spring training for half-filled rosters.

Arbitration-eligible players, such as the Phillies’ Rhys Hoskins and Zach Eflin, could begin the season before their 2022 salaries are determined, as some players did after the 1995 strike was settled. It wouldn’t be ideal, but it’s less complicated than, say, obtaining work visas on short notice for players who live overseas. A few players on each team wind up getting delayed every year under normal circumstances. An abrupt start to spring training after an 11th-hour handshake on a new collective bargaining agreement would only cause additional snags.

And then there’s the matter of COVID-19. Not only will MLB and the players’ union have to agree on updated protocols after duking it out over the economics, but time will need to be allotted for intake screening before camps can open. The logistics are daunting, even more because team personnel, including doctors and trainers, haven’t been allowed to communicate with players during the lockout.

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Educated guesses within the industry are that teams and players will need at least one week between a labor deal and the reporting date for pitchers and catchers. That would leave Feb. 8 as a reasonable day to circle to avoid a delayed spring training. Based on recent history, little tends to happen until the sides are up against a deadline. But considering they went 43 days from the beginning of the lockout before discussing the core economic issues, it’s hard to imagine that 21 days are enough to reach an accord.

Then again, spring training doesn’t have to start on time for the season to go off as scheduled. And make no mistake, as much as fans don’t want their spring-training vacations ruined, opening day is the real deadline because that’s when the owners and players would begin to lose money.

Two years ago, when baseball came back from the pandemic, the continuation of spring training — “summer camp,” as it was dubbed — lasted 23 days. That wasn’t enough time, especially for pitchers, to prepare their bodies for even a 60-game sprint. But it’s doubtful that players would need a full six-week camp either. If camps open on Feb. 28, they would have one month to get ready for opening day on March 31.

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In that scenario, a new CBA would need to be agreed upon no later than Feb. 20.

Doable? Maybe.

“You’re always one breakthrough away from a deal,” commissioner Rob Manfred said in a Dec. 2 news conference to announce the owners’ vote to lock out the players. “That’s the reality.”

The reality now, seven weeks later, is that there’s still time for that breakthrough before the lockout eats into the season, or even spring training.

Do yourself a favor, though, and keep those travel plans flexible.