Lockout FAQ: What's in it for either side to agree quickly


So what now?

The New England Patriots are officially done playing football, and that usually means it’s about time for baseball.

But Cubs pitchers and catchers are spending more time these days on Wordle and jigsaw puzzles than making plans to report to spring training next month as baseball heads into its eighth week since owners locked out the players.

The sides have had exactly one face-to-face encounter since then, reportedly for about an hour without any sign of significant progress toward a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement.

So what does it all mean for 2022 — other than the fact the Patriots stink?

Here’s a brief guide in FAQ form for what to look for in baseball’s ongoing labor dispute, if not what to expect:

When did the lockout start?

Dec. 2, immediately after the last CBA expired at 11:59 p.m. on Dec. 1, after a brief, unproductive session between union and ownership MLB reps.

A bunch of players have signed with teams since then, but isn’t activity banned during a lockout? What gives?

Only activity between major-league teams and major-league signings are banned during a lockout. Minor-league free agents are allowed to sign deals. The biggest major-league player news since the lockout have been the retirement announcements of Kyle Seager and Jon Lester.

When do pitchers and catchers report to spring training?

Different teams set their own mid-February dates. The Cubs haven’t publicly released their reporting date yet, but some teams have scheduled Feb. 15.

That doesn’t leave much time. Will a labor deal get done by then?

The betting line at NBC Sports Chicago for an on-time start to spring training is — *checks notes* — off the board. In other words, don’t count on it. After last week’s ownership proposal that reportedly went nowhere with the players, the ball was in the union’s court to make a counter-proposal, with no specific timeline for when that might come. They have a lot of ground to make up.

What are the chances the season starts on time?

For now, that’s the hope most of the industry is clinging to — although that would still take a massive acceleration of negotiating to close a big gap on economic issues such as early-career salary limitations, luxury-tax thresholds and current tanking incentives such as the hard caps on amateur spending. The way talks have gone so far, the chances fall somewhere between — *checks notes again* — slim and none.

So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

OK, sure. If you want to go Lloyd Christmas on the optimism thing: If both sides got serious enough to negotiate in a sustained, good-faith effort to actually bridge their sizable differences over the next 4-5 weeks, they might salvage an on-time start after a truncated spring training.

What would be the deadline to make that possible?

MLB successfully employed a three-week “summer camp” to prep for the 60-game season in 2020. So using that as a model, pitchers likely need at least that long, and maybe four weeks, to prep for a full season, assuming some allowances for extra rosters spots early (position players don’t need nearly as much time). That would put a soft deadline somewhere around March 1 to keep March 31 openers on track.

What about all the unsigned free agents that are still out there?

Great question. Despite a flurry of high-level of signings in the days leading up to the lockout, top-of-the-market free agents such as Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Nick Castellanos and Freddie Freeman remain jobless — along with local favorites Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber. MLB also has a major-league phase of the Rule 5 draft left to conduct. That’s a lot of business to take care of — presumably at least some of which would come before camps opened. Either way, it could result in one one of the most frenzied free agent periods we’ve seen as soon as an agreement is struck.

What incentives do the players have to get a deal done quickly?

Obviously, getting paid. And, more than that, getting paid for a full season — especially after players in their earning primes lost a lot during a 2020 season of prorated salaries. On the other hand, the average, full-season big-league salary has gone down during the course of the last CBA — for the first time since owners were found to have colluded in the 1980s — and players have a very strong incentive to hold the line to reverse that trend for their long-term collective benefit. That’s where pitched battles over disincentivizing tanking and raising luxury-tax payroll thresholds could get ugly.

What incentives do the owners have to get a deal done quickly?

One would think that potential losses that could be measured in the billions of dollars would be incentive enough for the stewards of a $10-12-billion-a-year industry. By comparison, industrywide revenues were about $1 billion at the time of the 1994-95 labor stoppage that wiped out a World Series and about 10 weeks of regular-season games over the two years. But some reports have suggested that many owners aren’t as concerned about losing at least some of the regular season on the front end at a time when weather is colder, kids are in school and attendance is typically lower — especially with the likelihood of expanded playoffs that would increase revenues on the back end.

Can baseball afford to put its fans through another labor war that delays a season?

The short answer would seem to be absofreakinglutely not. Consider that the pace of a game that now has more strikeouts than hits for the first time in its history has made baseball so difficult to watch for a lot of sports fans that the commissioner’s office has hired Theo Epstein and Ken Griffey Jr. to troubleshoot the problem and brainstorm solutions. The last time MLB’s attendance went up was 2015 — with a 7.1-percent decrease since then through 2019 (the last season before the pandemic). But commissioner Rob Manfred is a labor lawyer who pulled off the historically impossible-looking feat of suppressing average salaries with the gains won in the last two CBAs. And no matter how many times Marvin Miller rolls over in his grave or how many teams take turns tanking each year, it’s hard to imagine the owners budging off those gains without a crisis-level threat at stake.

Geez, can you give us any reason to feel good about where things stand?

How about two: First, this is the first labor war in baseball during the age of social media as a major public influencer, and the two sides got a harsh blast of that reality during the ugly 2020 negotiations over pandemic protocols and pay. They won’t have to guess or wait for fan reaction like they did during the 1994-95 debacle; they’ll get a strong taste in real time. And, second, nobody actually believes tanking is good for the game (no matter how much some owners like the short-term profiting from it). So if the sides can get together on effective anti-tanking measures — regardless of what they look like — that almost necessarily bridges most of the overall gap.

Anything new we can look forward to at this point that seems sure to be in the CBA?

An expanded playoff format almost certainly will be part of the new CBA, either at the 14-team level the owners proposed or the 12-team level the players offered. And say hey to a designated hitter spot in the lineup for the Cubs with the universal DH looking likelier every day.

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