The usual MLB offseason events this winter will take place under a canopy of uncertainty, if they take place at all. That's because labor strife may well be in the offing.
The current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), which is the negotiated accord that governs the working relationship between MLB players and owners, expires on Dec. 1. That deadline is fast approaching, and given the wide swaths of disputed economic territory in the game right now agreeing to a new CBA by then seems at least somewhat unlikely.
So what happens -- or doesn't happen -- between now and that first critical turning point of the offseason when the calendar flips to December? Let's briefly explore.
1. Lots of negotiating
The players no doubt have ambitious objectives this time around. To wit, they'd presumably like a path to get younger, pre-arbitration players paid more in line with their value, find levers to get the average player salary back on the upward trajectory (likely via a reinvigorated free agent system), and target the increasingly common practice on the team side of being willfully non-competitive. Needless to say, owners aren't going to cede ground in those areas without give-backs or a loss of leverage, and that's why a lot of discussion is going to be necessary.
The good news is that discussions on the broader issues have been ongoing for multiple years -- nothing on either side's wishlist is much of a surprise at this late hour -- and sit-down sessions tailored to the expiring CBA have been taking place since the summer. That's a good bit of runway, but is it enough?
Now that we're clear of the World Series, and free agents and front offices are shifting their focus to the 2022 season, perhaps the process will be garrisoned with additional momentum. The pace and seriousness of talks is likely to increase, and lead negotiators are going to come closer to sussing out what's feasible and what probably isn't.
It's hard to know how much distance is left to go. Maybe there's something resembling a framework within reach or maybe reaching a tentative agreement by Dec. 1 is a fool's errand. Wherever things stand on the inside, there will be serious efforts to advance toward a resolution.
2. Very little movement of free agents
Under standard conditions, Nov. 7 would begin the free agent frenzy this offseason. That's the date on which qualifying-offer and most contract-option decisions must be made. It's also the date on which the exclusive negotiating period between free agents and their incumbent teams draws to a close, which means those free agents are at that point free to talk to any club. However, teams are almost certainly going to be in a holding pattern until a new CBA is agreed to. This can't be done in a coordinated manner -- i.e., commissioner Rob Manfred can't declare a stop to free agency -- unless and until a lockout takes place. However, there's nothing to stop individual teams from deciding it's best to wait on major investments in player payroll.
There's some horse-sense behind that. It's entirely possible that the next CBA will alter the structure of MLB free agency and perhaps do so to a drastic extent. Clubs don't want to commit, say, nine figures without knowing what the next suite of related incentives/disincentives will be. As well, the Competitive Balance Tax threshold -- i.e., the "luxury tax" on high payrolls -- may be shifted, and that will affect the spending behavior teams on that end of the continuum.
On a more cold-eyed level, freezing out free agent signings could in theory ramp up internal pressure within the players union to get something done. That said, solidarity among players is quite high right now thanks to the negotiations leading up to the COVID-abbreviated 2020 season.
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3. Leaks and saber-rattling
Typically, the ownership side worries more about public opinion on such matters. That might be even more so the case this time around since any labor stoppage will almost certainly come from the owners (more on that in a moment). Leaks to the press about negotiations and earnest-seeming, not-for-attribution comments about how unreasonable the other side is are designed to sway public opinion. As such, none of this merits much of your attention. The discussions that matter take place between the principal negotiators behind conference room doors and not in full view of the sporting press.
As for the saber-rattling, it will probably come in the form of warnings from the ownership side -- warnings that they'll have no choice but to lock the players out if no agreement is reached by Dec. 1. While the necessity of such an action is quite dubious, the chances of a lockout are high indeed.
4. A (likely) lockout by owners
A lockout means the owners shut down the industry as a means to hasten and add urgency to CBA negotiations. When a labor stoppage happens on the player side, it's a strike, but that's not likely to happen. That's because the owners will almost certainly lock out the players if no agreement is in place soon after the outgoing one expires. The owners could allow the offseason to proceed under the usual circumstances while negotiations continued, but that's probably not going to happen.
This isn't necessarily cause for panic on the part of fans. Throughout modern labor history in MLB -- i.e., 1969 onward -- some labor stoppages have been quite short. That this one would happen more than two months before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training makes it even more likely that serious labor troubles are not ahead. That said, if a stoppage drags well into January, then an altered MLB calendar becomes a real possibility. In addition to the usual spring training timeline, a significant chunk of time will be needed for free agency to be sorted out once a lockout ends.
For now, though, the hope remains that labor peace is achieved before November ends.