Spring training won’t start on time, and if Major League Baseball and the players’ association don’t soon come to an agreement, the scheduled March 31st opener is in jeopardy.
It was naïve to think that the owners’ latest proposal, made to the players on Saturday, was going to result in a settlement. The best that can happen is that it results in multiple days of dialogue, which hasn’t happened since the lockout began on December 2nd.
When commissioner Rob Manfred addressed the press last Thursday, he said that missing regular-season games would be a “disastrous outcome.” Manfred also said that four weeks of spring training were necessary before the start of the season and that it would take several days between the time an agreement was reached and ratified and the opening of camps.
If four weeks of spring training are needed, camps must open on about March 1st, and an agreement would need to be made in the next 10 days or so. An agreement in the next 10 days seems unlikely, but perhaps the crush of time could be the incentive needed.
From outside, it seems like the path to a settlement would be hastened if the owners offered a higher minimum salary. Since the game is getting younger, what would be wrong with a higher minimum?
In the first three years of player service, their salaries are controlled by the teams.
Last year, the minimum salary was $570,500. MLB has offered first-year players $615,000, second-year players $650,000 and third-year players $725,000. The union is seeking a $775,000 minimum.
The trigger for a luxury tax is also a contentious issue, and probably a harder one on which to find common ground.
Currently, team payrolls above $212 million are subject to a luxury tax. MLB has proposed raises to $214 million in the first two years, $216 million in the third year, $218 million in 2025 and $222 million in 2026.
Players would like the trigger at $245 million. They think that a higher trigger would encourage teams to spend more on free agents while the owners contend it would hurt competitive balance.
They also disagree on a bonus pool for players not yet eligible for arbitration. Owners are offering $15 million; players want $100 million.
Most fans aren’t interested in the details of an agreement. They just want baseball.
There are other areas where the players and owners may agree, or at least aren’t far apart. Manfred said that the sides have agreed on a universal designated hitter.
I’ve always enjoyed the National League games with double-switches, but in the last few years I’ve been won over to the DH side. The designated hitter is used even in high schools, and it’s unfair to ask American League pitchers who’ve never had a professional at-bat to swing twice a year in an interleague game. It also increases the chance of injuries.
Regular designated hitters are often veterans, and it will increase the market for some older players who might be a liability in the field. Last year, the average salary for AL designated hitters was $9 million.
Manfred also said draft compensation for signing top-tier free agents would be eliminated. Oriole fans remember that the team lost its top two draft choices in 2014 because they signed Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez.
Other areas that the sides don’t seem far apart on are expanded playoffs and a draft lottery. Owners want 14 teams instead of 10 in the postseason; players say 12. Owners would like three teams in a draft lottery; players are seeking eight.
On a smaller issue, MLB has offered to limit the number of times a player can be optioned to the minors to five in a single season. The players are seeking a four-time limit.
There’s currently no limit to the number of times a player can be optioned, and the Orioles have liberally used the unlimited options to churn their roster in the last several years. Last year, outfielder Ryan McKenna was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk seven times.
Owners haven’t been able to promote the games during the lockout. They also haven’t been able to use players’ names, images or likenesses.
However, the longer the dispute goes, the more money both sides lose. The Orioles are still scheduled to play the New York Yankees in the first Grapefruit League game on February 26th. In normal times, that game would sell out and might be televised.
Owners will lose money on exhibition games. If the season is delayed, they’ll lose on regular-season games. Players aren’t paid until the regular season begins.
There are 197 arbitration-eligible players who still must agree on contracts, including three Orioles — pitchers John Means and Tanner Scott, and first baseman/DH Trey Mancini.
Hundreds of players are still free agents and don’t have a baseball home for 2022.
The owners are betting that that uncertainty and the possibility of missing paychecks for regular-season games in April will convince the players to settle. The players are hoping that losing regular-season games will convince the owners to move.
In the last negotiation for a Collective Bargaining Agreement, the players lost ground, and they’re determined not to do so again.
The longer this goes, the more baseball risks alienating a disgusted fan base. The Super Bowl is over, and baseball should be ready to begin. Raising the minimum salary would be a good start.