The lockout is coming! The lockout is coming!
Two days before Major League Baseball seems set to enter a self-imposed shutdown, it continued to go berserk. In an ironic way of showing they can’t agree on how to split the piles of money the league generates, it was raining money.
Teams have committed more than $1 billion to players since Friday, including a three-year, $130 million free agent contract the New York Mets gave pitcher Max Scherzer on Monday.
The deal’s annual average value of $43.3 million is the highest in the sport’s history, eclipsing the $36 million pitcher Gerrit Cole got from the Yankees in 2019. The pact was finalized as representatives for team owners and the MLB Players Association met at a luxury resort near Dallas, ostensibly to work toward a new collective bargaining agreement.
If no CBA is agreed to by 8:59 p.m. PST Wednesday, owners are expected to lock out players. It would be MLB’s first work stoppage since the strike that shortened the 1994 season and wiped out that year’s World Series.
With the better part of 48 hours generally required to finalize the details of signings and trades and have them become officially logged with MLB, teams treated Monday as a sort of self-imposed transaction deadline.
The Texas Rangers committed some $561 million over the past two days, including $76 million for 2022, in signing infielders Corey Seager (10 years, $325 million) and Marcus Semien (seven years, $175 million) and pitcher Jon Gray (four years, $56 million). The Mets spent about $250 million in four days on Scherzer, outfielders Starling Marte and Mark Canha and infielder Eduardo Escobar.
The Seattle Mariners (Robbie Ray) and Toronto Blue Jays (Kevin Gausman) added front-line starters for commitments of $115 and $110 million apiece over five years. The Tampa Bay Rays and Miami Marlins, two of the most frugal teams in the sport, spent big to keep Wander Franco and Sandy Alcantara, respectively.
The Dodgers lost two stars (Scherzer and Seager) to free agency. They did sign reliever Daniel Hudson to a one-year deal for $7 million, quite a payday for a middling reliever who had a 5.21 ERA in 19 innings for the Padres last season.
The Padres, who on Saturday traded away infielder Adam Frazier for two minor leaguers and some salary relief, were idle. At least tangibly.
They remain in the hunt for a starting outfielder and relief pitchers. A starting pitcher is a secondary priority. They have engaged in talks about moving first baseman Eric Hosmer and his salary, as well as discussions with the Oakland A’s regarding a couple of the veterans they are expected to move.
But unless A.J. Preller, president of baseball operations, moves quickly, all that will be on hold for a while.
It was at a Texas meeting that a last-minute deal was struck on the CBA in 2016.
No one seems confident that would happen again. People familiar with the negotiations, speaking on the condition of anonymity, were instead increasingly pessimistic.
There is resentment on the union side over the owners “winning” the last CBA negotiations. Some owners remain bitter about players “winning” the negotiation before the COVID-shortened 2020 season.
If it were possible for one issue to encapsulate the players’ main beef with the current system, it is that the average player salary has lagged compared to the growth in revenues and franchise values realized by owners. That average has, in fact, fallen six percent over the past five years.
Far more players make less than the $4.17 million mean. And that lends to another sticking point in negotiations — how to compensate younger players more equitably.
Currently, players must reach six years of service time to achieve free agency and, thus, have the opportunity to become a top earner. After their first three years, they are eligible for arbitration. Before that, almost all earn between $500,000 and $1 million. How to shorten the service time requirement for free agency is a major issue of contention, as virtually every team utilizes young players to offset cost of veteran players.
It is interesting to note that Scherzer and Semien, two of the six members of the MLBPA’s executive committee, which has a significant voice on behalf of players, received $305 million in guaranteed money the past two days.
However, even as those signings (and others) indicate the game is rewarding its participants well, Scherzer could make more in 2022 than the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Guardians or Pittsburgh Pirates will pay every one of their players.
No one contends the real problem is not at the top of the chain, though players do fret that a reliance on analytics and its propagation of the general belief that many players are interchangeable has prompted teams to do fewer long-term deals with veterans.
The union has no interest in anything that would resemble a hard salary cap, and among its main concerns is the system encourages some teams to not spend on players. Owners have offered establishing a salary floor while also lowering the competitive balance threshold (for which teams are penalized monetarily for going over) to $180 million.
Also at issue is potential playoff expansion, which would make the league (owners) more money. Players want a more equitable split of that money, and the sides have their differences of opinion on whether more playoff entrants would encourage teams to spend more or spend less.
While that last part — two sides seeing the same issue entirely differently — hints at how polarized the sides are, there is a belief this will be like more than half the previous work stoppages. Of the eight times players have gone on strike or owners have locked out players, no games have been lost in five of them.
“Honestly, I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters at the owners’ meetings two weeks ago. “… I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about. It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”