At some point in the next few weeks MLB and the MLBPA will agree to a new collective bargaining agreement, bringing to an end what is already the longest owners' lockout in baseball history. I'm not sure when that will happen, but it will happen. Major League Baseball will not cease to exist. The two sides will reach a deal at an undetermined point in the future. I know that much. But the start of spring training is in serious jeopardy.
Pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report in about two weeks, and it's not like MLB and the MLBPA can reach a deal, then everyone shows up to spring training the next day. Even ignoring free agency and trades, teams will need time to wrap up their offseason business (arbitration, visas for players in other countries, etc.) before camp can begin.
The pandemic-shortened 2020 season showed us MLB can get away with a three-week "spring training." It's not ideal, but in the worst-case scenario, it is doable. Figure a two-week "offseason" and a three-week "spring training" is the absolute bare minimum necessary to start the regular season once the new CBA is reached. Five weeks of lead time.
So, with that in mind, let's look at possible milestones for CBA talks. There is no actual deadline for a deal -- the Dec. 1 expiration of the old CBA was the closest thing to a real deadline -- but the longer the lockout goes on, the more it compromises the season, and no one wants that. Here is when a deal must be reached to meet some admittedly arbitrary deadlines.
Feb. 1: Full spring training
MLB and the MLBPA met Tuesday (Feb. 1), and the talks were "heated" as the sides left nowhere close to a deal.
A new deal on Feb. 1 would have given teams roughly two weeks to complete their offseasons before pitchers and catchers report, and really, it's not the end of the world if the offseason lingers into spring training. Arbitration hearings are often held during camp and we've seen free agents not sign until late February or early March, including big names like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. The truncated offseason would be weird and unfortunate, but at least players would get a full spring training to prepare for the season. That's pretty important.
Feb. 7: Full exhibition schedule
The Cactus League and Grapefruit League seasons are scheduled to begin Saturday, Feb. 26. That's about 10 days after pitchers and catchers report. Players will need at least one team workout before jumping into games (ideally more, but at least one) and the league will need a few days for COVID-19 intake testing, so figure Feb. 7 is the latest possible date for an agreement that does not sacrifice spring training games. Beyond this date, the owners will cost themselves revenue by missing spring games (players do not get paid their salaries in spring training, so they won't feel it as much financially).
March 1: Opening Day
Opening Day is scheduled for Thursday, March 31. Reaching a deal on March 1 would leave just enough time for a two-week offseason and a three-week spring training, and allow the regular season to begin as scheduled. MLB and the MLBPA would be cutting it extremely close, so close that one little hiccup (delayed visas or a wave of positives during intake testing) could derail the entire plan, but it seems doable.
This is the first true drop dead date. Beyond March 1, there's basically no way MLB and the MLBPA could reach an agreement in time to avoid disrupting the regular season, when paychecks are on the line (salary for players and money-making regular season games for teams). The lockout will hit everyone's wallet should it extend beyond March 1.
March 15: Delayed Opening Day
The 1990 lockout set a precedent for a delayed Opening Day. That lockout lasted 32 days, shortened spring training to roughly two weeks, and pushed Opening Day back one week. Three extra days were tacked on to the end of the schedule to allow for a full 162-game season. So yes, pushing Opening Day back is a thing that has happened and could happen again.
An agreement on March 15 followed by a two-week offseason and a three-week spring training would push Opening Day back to April 15 or so. Each team would miss four series and somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 games. Those games could then be made up through a combination of doubleheaders, and adding an extra week at the end of the season.
To be clear, if they delay the start of the season, MLB would jump into the current schedule wherever Opening Day falls rather than actually push the schedule back. Travel arrangements have already been made and non-baseball functions at MLB stadiums have been booked. Let's use the World Series champion Atlanta Braves as an example. Here is their early season schedule:
- March 31 to April 3 at Marlins
- April 4-5 at Mets
- April 7-10 vs. Reds
- April 11-13 vs. Nationals
- April 14-17 at Padres
Push Opening Day back two weeks and the Marlins, Mets, Reds, and Nationals games would be rescheduled for later dates, and the Braves would open the season with that Padres series. Moving everything back two weeks would be a logistical nightmare, so MLB would have every team pick up the current schedule whenever the season begins.
It's also possible MLB and the MLBPA will agree to delay Opening Day and simply shorten the season rather than play a full 162-game slate. There is precedent for a 154-game season (the pre-1961 standard) and a 144-game season (1995 after the strike), so those could be the targets should the two agree to a slightly shortened season.
May 1: 100-game season
We all love round numbers and a 100-game regular season could become a natural target should the lockout extend well into April. There is no precedent for a 100-game season (teams played 103-111 games around the 1981 strike and 112-117 games before the 1994 strike), but there was no precedent for a 60-game season last year either. Sometimes history gets made.
Each team is scheduled to play its 62nd game on or around June 6, which would make May 1 or so the deadline for a new CBA. A May 1 agreement followed by a two-week offseason and three-week spring training sets up a June 6 Opening Day for a 100-game season, and June 6 is conveniently a Monday, typically the first day of a new series.
June 15: All-Star break
The All-Star Game is scheduled for July 19 this year -- it will be the latest All-Star Game since the strike-interrupted 1981 season resumed with the Midsummer Classic on Aug. 9 -- and each team will play 97-100 games before the break. So the All-Star break serves as a good starting point for another 60-ish game season. MLB could even start the season with the All-Star Game in an effort to draw fans back to the sport. Wouldn't be a bad idea.
Anyway, to begin the regular season either with the All-Star Game itself or immediately after the break, MLB and the MLBPA would need to agree to a new CBA in mid June, so let's call it June 15. That allows for our speculative two-week offseason and three-week spring training. Maybe they could speed things up and agree to a deal on June 21 and still start the season around the All-Star break, but gosh, that's really cutting the close. June 15 or so is a reasonable target for an All-Star start.
Aug. 1: Worst-case scenario
This is probably the true drop dead date in which MLB and the MLBPA will either agree to a new CBA and play baseball this year, or they won't and there will be no baseball in 2021. Agree to a deal on Aug. 1 and that leaves time for what, a 45-game season at most? Maybe a 30-game season? At that point it might make sense to skip the regular season entirely and come up with a massive 30-team round robin style postseason. The lockout lingering into August is the disaster scenario for baseball. No one wins. Not the owners, not the players, and certainly not the fans.
Feb. 1, 2023: Full spring training
In the unlikely event the 2022 season is missed, then we'll do this all again next offseason, and Feb. 1 again becomes the date in which MLB and the MLBPA will need to have a CBA in place to conduct a normal spring training. Miss the season and the clock on all this essentially resets, and we're looking at the same dates again, just for 2023 instead of 2022.