Rob Manfred

FILE - In this Nov. 21, 2019, file photo, baseball commissioner Rob Manfred speaks to the media at the owners meeting in Arlington, Texas.

( — The MLB hot stove is ablaze this week as players are signing contracts across the sport like there’s no tomorrow. Part of the explanation for the timing of this sudden rush for guys to sign on the dotted line? The reality that in a couple of days, there really might be no tomorrow in Major League Baseball.

The current collective bargaining agreement between MLB team owners and the MLB Players Association—the agreement that governs anything and everything pertaining to the rules and operations of the sport—is set to expire at 11:59 p.m. ET on Wednesday, Dec. 1. Negotiations between the two sides working toward a new deal have been taking place in recent days, but much like the sparring that took place between the entities to agree upon rules for the 2020 COVID-shortened season, these discussions aren’t moving along with the desired urgency.

It’s a frustrating fact for baseball fans who have already had to endure so much of the squabbling between the players and owners over the past couple of years. But without a Hail Mary agreement in the final hours, baseball will wake up Thursday morning with a frozen chill over the sport.

Upon the expiration of the current agreement, a lockout is coming—and it’s coming soon.

Why is this happening?

With the backdrop of the turmoil of the last couple of years throughout Major League Baseball, it’s almost incomprehensible that the players and owners weren’t able to get out ahead of this thing. The deadline has been no secret in recent years, but each time the sides negotiated a COVID-related deal to push the sport along within the context of that given season, it was akin to kicking the can down the road for the larger discussion that was inevitably going to arrive. 

Well, now it’s here, and it’s difficult to muster much optimism that the sides have learned their lessons from the previous strain placed upon one another—and fans of the game—with the dragged-out affair of 2020, and then the winter of threatening another chaotic year ahead of the 2021 season.

The primary reason for the impending lockout is the sheer volume of issues on the table that both the players and owners would like amended. With both sides digging in their heels—or worse, offering empty proposals in bad faith just to stir up the hornet’s nest, as has happened on numerous occasions over the past couple of years—it’s hard to envision a quick-and-easy culmination to this round of negotiations.

News came out this week that the owners would like to implement a permanent expanded postseason format, which would see 14 teams reach the playoffs instead of the current system that includes 10. From the players’ perspective, there would be rightful concern that the proposed format could sincerely hinder the market for spending on talent throughout the game. 

If a team believes itself to be on the cusp of contending for the top spot in their division, but suddenly no longer needs to fret about the one-game wild card should they narrowly fail to reach that goal, what then would be that team’s incentive to spend big money to sign the best available talent that could put them over the top? If teams believe they have a good chance to sneak into the expanded postseason with 82 wins or so, that theoretically could limit their desire to spend to a higher level.

Additionally, with more playoff teams and games comes more financial incentives for owners from gate revenue and TV contracts. But if there aren’t guarantees for the players’ to reap a proportional piece of that pie, why would the players agree to a deal that includes a watered-down postseason? These are the kinds of questions that must be resolved between the parties before the baseball calendar can proceed as it normally would.

Service-time manipulation—an increasingly common practice where teams wait to promote worthy prospects to the Majors in order to benefit from their services for an extra year and thus delay free agency for that player—a decision on the Universal Designated Hitter, and the tanking phenomenon annually limiting the pool of potential teams willing to spend money on significant player contracts are all additional issues for the players. 

For the owners, the previous CBA worked largely in their favor. The MLBPA, it could be argued, focused too much on ancillary details in previous collective bargaining iterations, while taking for granted the type of contracts that were regularly doled out to not just the top talent, but free agents of various skill levels between 10 and 20 years ago. There has been a massive shift in the way MLB clubs operate since then, electing in many cases to prioritize the financial benefits of homegrown talent above contacts for aging free agents.

Star players still have no trouble finding contracts that recognize their value--that much has been abundantly clear in recent days as money is thrown around to this year's free agent class. But the market for subsequent tiers of free agents isn't what it once was.

Teams are better than ever at taking advantage of the salary structure system that locks players into a near league-minimum salaries for the first three years of their MLB careers, regardless of performance. Then it’s another three years of salary arbitration eligibility before players ever gain their first crack at free agency.

With salaries being limited on the front-end of careers, and the notion of free agency not being utilized by teams in the same way it once was, there are some players who dispute the inherent nature of the salary structure used by Major League Baseball. The owners, of course, like the way things have been going. In their minds, if it ain’t broke (for them), why fix it?

Those sorts of fundamental disagreements aren’t easily resolved, which is why the notion of ‘those greedy players’ that you’ll often hear from baseball fans this time of year isn’t exactly a realistic application of what’s taking place behind the scenes.

Regardless of which side you hold responsible for the impending lockout, however, the reality is that the players and team owners must find common ground in the coming weeks in order for the 2022 MLB calendar—player signings, spring training and finally, the start of the regular season schedule—to go off without a hitch. If the freeze that is expected to begin later this week lingers into February, baseball fans could be in store for more labor-related headaches in the new year.

Copyright 2021 KMOV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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