With locked-out pitchers and catchers due to report to camps in a matter of days, and with owners and players far apart on most core economics issues in collective bargaining talks, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred declined Thursday to officially delay the opening of spring training.
That announcement could come as soon as Saturday, pending the outcome of another bargaining session. But Manfred also made clear what anything other than an on-time start to the regular season would mean for baseball.
“I see missing games as a disastrous outcome for this industry,” Manfred said in a news conference at the conclusion of the owners’ quarterly meetings in Orlando. “And we’re committed to making an agreement in an effort to avoid that.”
In his first public comments since the owners directed him to lock out the players on Dec. 2, Manfred said MLB negotiators will present a proposal to the players’ association in an in-person meeting Saturday in New York. It will mark the first bargaining session between the sides since Feb. 1 and the second proposal from MLB since the lockout began.
And until it gets made, Manfred — a self-described “optimist” — isn’t ready to shorten spring training, as inevitable as it seems.
“The status of spring training is no change right now,” Manfred said. “We’re going to have a conversation with the MLBPA about the calendar. We understand where the calendar is, but until we have that conversation, until we see how the session on Saturday goes, it’s no change.”
Manfred described MLB’s new offer as “a good faith, positive proposal in an effort to move the process forward.” He also said the owners agreed to eliminate draft-pick compensation in free agency, a notable move in the players’ direction, and to bring the designated hitter to the National League, as expected.
But given the course of the talks thus far and the chasm between the sides on most topics — minimum salary, the amount of money in a bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, the revenue-sharing system, a draft lottery to improve competitive integrity, the luxury-tax threshold, and expanded playoffs, to name a few — a meeting on Super Bowl eve feels like a Hail Mary pass to avoid a delay in spring training unless the owners agreed to lift the lockout, a scenario that hasn’t been discussed.
Manfred said he expects it would take less than a week from a handshake on a CBA to open spring training. But there are many logistical issues that would need to get sorted out, from the hundreds of free agents who need to sign contracts to obtaining work visas for players who live overseas.
Once spring training is delayed, the focus will shift to the regular season. Manfred said MLB’s experience with a three-week “summer camp” before the 60-game pandemic season in 2020 proved that at least a four-week spring training will be required.
Based on that timetable, an agreement would need to be reached by the Feb. 23-25 range to avoid missing games.
“You’re always one breakthrough away from making an agreement,” Manfred said, reiterating his comment from 70 days earlier when he enacted the lockout. “That’s the art of this process. Somebody makes a move. We’ll make additional moves on Saturday that creates flexibility on the other side, and what seemed like a big gap on this topic or that topic isn’t such a big gap anymore.”
In December, Manfred said the owners moved to lock out the players to help spur negotiations. But the sides didn’t meet again until Jan. 13, a span of 42 days. There have been only four meetings on core economics since the lockout began, none involving the luxury-tax threshold, a key issue in the talks.
After the players made their most recent proposal on Feb. 1, MLB said it would counter within a few days. Instead, baseball requested help from a federal mediator, a voluntary process that the players’ union declined in favor of compelling the league to return to the bargaining table.
Many players have recently questioned Manfred’s and the owners’ commitment to reaching a deal. Manfred pushed back against that accusation, claiming the owners’ proposal would net the players “hundreds of millions of dollars” over the term of a five-year agreement. He also rejected the notion that management has dragged its feet in bargaining talks.
“We have consistently tried tactics to move the process,” Manfred said. “In terms of any delay in the process, that’s a mutual responsibility of the bargaining process. Phones work two ways.”
Manfred acknowledged that the relationship between MLB and the players’ association has grown increasingly contentious, especially after the testy midsummer negotiation to start the 2020 season. All the same principals — Manfred and deputy commissioner Dan Halem on the MLB’s side; MLBPA executive director Tony Clark and chief negotiator Bruce Meyer on the players’ — are involved in these talks.
But Manfred also touted his record in negotiating CBAs in 2002, 2006, 2011, and 2016 without missing regular-season games.
“In the history of baseball, the only person who has made a labor agreement without a dispute — and I did four of them — was me. Somehow, during those four negotiations, players and union representatives figured out a way to trust me enough to make a deal. I’m the same person today as I was in 1998.”