How MLB lockout length could affect White Sox


At the moment, Major League Baseball is a tumbleweed-strewn desert.

The players are locked out, progress on negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement is reportedly zilch, and apart from the occasional fan-inspired bobblehead or minor league signing, there's just nothing happening.

Not exactly the typical Hot Stove season.

How long this thing will drag out seems to be anyone's guess, with initial reported hunches being optimistic, followed by more recent ones that transmit irritation over more than a month's worth of nothingness.

So how are Chicago White Sox fans supposed to react?

Frustration would be more than acceptable, as not only is there offseason work for Rick Hahn's front office to finish up, but the longer this goes on, the more jeopardy parts of the 2022 season are in, a season in which the South Siders have realistic championship aspirations.

Again, there's no telling how long this work stoppage will last. But here's a look at several scenarios, increasingly grim, and the effect they could have on the White Sox' pursuit of a World Series title this year.

If the lockout ends in January ... 

Vinnie Duber: That's the best-case scenario, of course, however unlikely. Hahn's front office can get to work on completing the rest of the offseason to-do list -- getting a second baseman, further restocking the bullpen and pursuing a trade of Craig Kimbrel -- before players report to camp. More importantly, players would not have their routines delayed at all and would have a full month and a half to prepare for the seven-month marathon they hope ends in a World Series title, some welcome normalcy, particularly for pitchers, following the 1-2 punch of a shortened 2020 campaign and a regular one in 2021 that wreaked havoc on arm health throughout the game.

Maddie Lee: It’s becoming less and less likely that MLB and the players association will come to an agreement by the end of this month. ESPN reported last week that the league was working on proposals to present to the MLBPA. According to The Athletic, that presentation will open talks on core economic issues for the first time since the owners locked out the players on Dec. 2. So, baseball isn’t necessarily hurtling toward a new CBA.

If the two sides do happen to wrap things up by the end of the month, the offseason proceeds pretty much business as usual. In a normal offseason, transactions get a boost around the winter meetings and then hit a holiday season lull. A late offseason market has been a trend in recent years.

If the lockout ends in February ... 

Duber: Spring training being slightly delayed is nowhere near as bad as the regular season being delayed, obviously. Still, there would be negative effects. Hahn's remaining offseason work would be crammed into a tighter window, and the time that it takes to finalize free-agent deals and trades could impact the readiness of the players involved. And after hearing for the last two seasons how badly pitchers were thrown out of whack, it'd be another perhaps uncomfortable curveball for the guys who throw the curveballs. But more than a month to prepare for a championship chase is certainly preferable than the alternative.

There's also the possibility that a brief delay in spring training, a week or two, would mean just bumping the entire season back a week or two, which would still allow players the ability to prepare as usual.

Lee: On the eve of the lockout, Hahn was asked how he’d feel if the remainder of the offseason was compressed into two weeks.

"So be it,” Hahn said then. “Let's go. Seriously, that's fine.”

While Hahn may feel confident in the front office’s preparation, no matter the length of the lockout, if the work stoppage shortens spring training, this will mark the third straight year that a combination of the pandemic and labor talks have affected the spring training schedule.

The pandemic shut down spring training in 2020, and when baseball resumed it did so with a sprint of a summer camp to prepare for the 60-game season. Last year, MLB shifted to a regional schedule with teams playing 28 games in 30 days, as COVID-19 cases spiked. The players have adjusted, but in a sport entrenched in routine, it’s not ideal.

If the lockout ends in March ... 

Duber: The stoppage lasting this far into spring training would likely have an effect on pitchers -- and hitters, too, who need the Cactus League games to regain their timing -- that could impact the season in a significant way. Every arm is different, of course, and some could be just fine while others could experience real issues. Just remember back to last year, when the South Side rotation was experiencing one injury after another in September. The White Sox are attempting to get Michael Kopech ready for a full season of starting in 2022, and a full-length spring would be the best conditions under which to do that. With such uncertainty, pitching depth would be more important than ever, perhaps even changing up how Hahn & Co. would approach their remaining offseason work.

Delaying the season a while could still be a possibility here, too, with the World Series hypothetically lasting well into November, perhaps not a problem for some teams but perhaps a problem for teams who play in cold-weather cities, like the White Sox.

Lee: If there is no agreement by March 1, injury concerns resurface in the face of a shortened spring training.

The injury bug hit the White Sox where it hurt last year, with Luis Robert, Eloy Jiménez and Yasmani Grandal all missing large portions of the season. By the end of the year, the rotation started showing wear and tear, with Carlos Rodón, Lance Lynn and Lucas Giolito all taking short trips to the 10-day IL.

The White Sox still finished the season in first place in the division. But it’s tempting to ask, could the postseason have gone differently if the squad had been closer to full strength throughout the year? They would like to answer that question this year. 

If the lockout ends in April ... 

Duber: I suppose there are worse-case scenarios than this, but we'll call this the worst-case scenario for now, as it would mean actual regular-season games coming off the calendar. Teams and players would still need at least a couple weeks of "spring" training, like we saw in 2020, meaning even an agreement on April 1, the day after the currently scheduled Opening Day, would mean at least two or three more weeks before the season could start. For the White Sox, chasing a championship would become even more difficult without any real time for pitchers to get their arms ready and hitters to find their timing at the plate. Remember, games count just as much in April as they do in September, and a stumble out of the gate caused by an inability to prepare could have drastic effects on the standings not just at season's start but at season's end, as well.

Then there's the matter of the White Sox filling their remaining offseason holes, which would have to be done at lightning-quick speed, with those players integrated into things in no time. It's not impossible -- and every team will be dealing with the same schedule -- but it's far from ideal. Losing this much time would create another hurdle to the White Sox' pursuit of a World Series title.

Lee: Both MLB and the players association are incentivized to avoid another shortened season. So, this (hopefully) is an unlikely scenario. But if the lockout were to knock out regular season games, that in turn could shift the free agent and trade markets. For the White Sox, that would mean, for example, a new calculation on Kimbrel’s trade value.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which some owners, facing a revenue cuts from a loss of games, are reluctant to spend. We saw a similar phenomenon last year, after the shortened 2020 season. According to the AP, MLB payrolls dropped 4 percent in 2021, compared to 2019.

A trade could be beneficial for both the White Sox and Kimbrel, with the longtime closer landing on a team in need of a ninth-inning guy. But how much of Kimbrel’s salary would the White Sox be willing to cover in a trade? Could a better deal arise at the trade deadline? Would the White Sox benefit more from just keeping Kimbrel on the team?

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