By Cole Parkinson
A work stoppage or lockout is never a good lock for any professional sports league. And with Major League Baseball currently doing just that, it’s not exactly a great time to stop work as free agency was just heating up. The battle between players and owners is only beginning, but the good news is both sides have a little bit of time to figure it out before Spring Training begins.
The current collective bargaining agreement was negotiated in 2016 and expired last Wednesday night and the league informed players at 12:01 p.m. on Dec. 2 it was locking them out — the first time MLB has seen a work stoppage in 25 years. During the lockout, no free agents can sign, no player can use team facilities, and all player activity is halted. That includes trades as teams aren’t technically allowed to talk to each other about players — though I’m sure conversations are still happening on that front. I wouldn’t be shocked if a flurry of deals were announced hours after the lockout is over.
The big squabble comes down to one thing… you guessed it — money. Players feel many second or third-tier players aren’t getting paid fairly when they reach free agency. With the sport seeing younger players make the jump sooner, players over 30 have begun to see fewer jobs available, too. So, to combat that, players are hoping to get paid during their primes, but with players unable to become free agents until six years of MLB service, teams circumvent that timeline. Just look back at Kris Bryant who looked more than ready to contribute for the Chicago Cubs in 2015, but was sent down to manipulate his service time. Smart business for teams, sure, but it’s a fair gripe most players have.
New York Mets starter Max Scherzer, who is also on the MLB Player’s Association eight-player executive, has stated in a story with The Athletic that “Unless this CBA completely addresses the competition (issues) and younger players getting paid, that’s the only way I’m going to put my name on it.”
So, don’t expect a resolution until players get a commitment they will get paid at younger ages.
Everyone has already lost money during the pandemic, so I would be shocked if MLB didn’t play a full 162 games this coming season, but you never know with lockouts. And let’s be honest, baseball is far from the most popular sport in North America at this point in time. A condensed schedule or lost season would be devastating for not only players and owners, but any momentum the sport has created.
Players also want to see teams try to compete instead of tanking — which means higher payrolls across the league. It’s pretty obvious teams like Baltimore and Pittsburgh were more interested in losing last season than putting a competitive team on the field. I mean, after a month of the regular season both teams were more or less out of the race.
Teams like Oakland, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, and Pittsburgh are notorious for having lower payrolls. Last season, Cleveland was dead last with a team payroll of $23,555,000. Tampa was at 27th with a payroll of $43,200,000, but the Rays were arguably the best team in the regular season. A high payroll may not always guarantee a World Series contender, but it does help.
Looking at some more specific asks, the league wants to expand the postseason to include 14 teams. This would see the best team in each league receiving a bye, while other division winners would get to choose their Wild Card opponent. I’m not entirely opposed to expanded playoffs, but I’m not sure it’s necessary from a fan perspective. You have 162 games to figure out who deserves to go to the playoffs, if you get eliminated on the last day of the season — like the Blue Jays in 2021 — so be it. It’s about creating additional revenue and I get that.
The pace of play is another topic of discussion, and I agree with the fact the game needs to move a bit quicker. Some games are getting right around the four-hour mark, and some of the postseason games were going well over four hours. If you love baseball, you can usually stick around and won’t complain, but the casual fan isn’t going to watch over four hours — especially if their team isn’t playing. A pitch clock is needed at this point. Having watched Rafael Dolis the last two seasons, I’m over pitchers taking a minute in between each pitch.
The talk of adding the designated hitter to the National League is music to my ears, too. I’ve never understood why anyone would want to watch the majority of pitchers strike out at the plate when you could have actual hitters there. Sure, some pitchers can hit, but let’s be honest — most are way more focused on their actual job. And don’t give me a “but what about the strategy required by NL managers” argument either. I’ll take a qualified hitter any day of the week. I could care less about the manager deciding whether or not to use a pinch hitter — this is a game and the more excitement the better. It also adds 15 more hitter positions in the NL.
Overall, I don’t think the stoppage will affect the regular season. Spring Training could get delayed, but I think both sides can see it’s incredibly important to be on the field come late March.
And while it’s hard to take sides in a dispute between millionaires and billionaires, I do think the players have a lot of valid concerns. Plus, I have a hard time rooting for any of the owners. They’re all billionaires looking to squeeze blood out of every stone they can get their hands on.