Major League Baseball’s 26-year run of labor peace ended at midnight Wednesday when what many feared was inevitable finally happened: the sport’s first lockout since 1990 became a reality.
With the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, the owners essentially closed baseball indefinitely, a negotiating strategy that commissioner Rob Manfred seemed more than ready to exercise when discussing the situation two weeks earlier in Chicago.
Oddly enough, the impasse over baseball’s economic system comes after teams spent roughly $1.5 billion in the first month of the offseason on new player contracts, a gold rush of sorts given the anxiety of the impending lockout. Despite that unprecedented money grab, the players remained focused on sweeping change, and doing whatever was necessary to accomplish it.
Take it from Max Scherzer, a member of the union’s executive council, who didn’t hide his pessimism Wednesday on a Zoom call that introduced him as a Met. Scherzer said his push to get the three-year, $130-million contract wrapped up early was directly related to the lockout, which he felt was unavoidable.
"When you look at the 2016 CBA agreement, and how that has worked over the past five years, as players we see major problems in it," Scherzer said, taking a break from the Dallas negotiations. "First and foremost, we see a competition problem, and how teams are behaving because of certain rules that are within them. Adjustments have to be made because of that to bring up the competition. As players, that’s absolutely critical to us to have a highly competitive league. When we don’t have that, we have issues."
Scherzer was speaking specifically about teams "tanking" — giving up on seasons by not investing in players and scooping up high draft picks. The union believes that lack of spending works to keep the average salary artificially low. Also, the luxury-tax system acts as a soft cap on payrolls, as only the Dodgers went over the $210-million threshold last season.
"The players sense a separation in the league," said agent Scott Boras, who joined Scherzer on Wednesday’s Zoom call. "A dynamic that now exists that didn’t exist ... Now nearly half the league is basically looking to next season by June or July so they can improve their draft status. This is not about anyone that operates in the industry or any team — it’s the rules. We have something in the rules that creates non-competitive fan interest.
"All those things need to be addressed and addressed immediately, because the whole integrity and wholesomeness 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."
That’s just a drawn-out way of saying the sport’s $11-billion revenues need to be spread out more fairly between teams and players, which is always the core matter of baseball’s labor negotiations. The two sides have discussed reducing the service time for free agency from six years to five — or even after the age of 29 — as well as changes to arbitration designed to raise the salaries of younger players. There are also a number of rule changes on the table, including a pitch clock and the DH, but the financial structure of the game is what has the key sticking points.
Scherzer is one of the bigger labor hawks on the players’ side, and he did not present a very diplomatic stance Wednesday when asked about the union’s state of preparedness for a long battle that could threaten the start of the regular season (and paychecks). This would be the fourth lockout in baseball’s history and first since 1990, which was the only one to push back games.
"We have a pretty good war chest behind us, money that we could allocate to players that need it," Scherzer said. "I’m not look at that we’re ever going to tap it. That’d be the best-case scenario. Hopefully we can get a deal. But I just know as players we’re steadfast in our belief of how we see the game."
WHAT TO KNOW
Major League Baseball hasn’t experienced a work stoppage since the 1994-95 seasons, but that was a players’ strike. A lockout is different in that it’s the owners who are initiating the shutdown of the sport once the collective bargaining agreement expires on Dec. 1.
During a lockout, all transactions are put on hold, effectively turning off the hot stove season by pausing free agency and halting trade activity. Players are barred from using team facilities. Next week’s winter meetings, scheduled for Dec. 6-8 in Orlando, will be canceled and the Rule 5 draft postponed indefinitely. January is the month arbitration figures are exchanged, so if the lockout persists, that could be delayed.
Management uses a lockout strategy to apply pressure to negotiations, but considering this is the offseason, the two sides may not truly feel a sense of urgency until the mid-February start of spring training is threatened or Opening Day is put in jeopardy roughly six weeks later. The owners and players remain far apart on changes to the sport’s economics, from how younger players should be paid to the qualifications for free agency. The union also wants to discourage “tanking” as teams giving up on seasons by failing to invest in players has contributed to the decline of the sport’s average salary.