The San Francisco Giants mesmerizing 107-win season is firmly in the rear view mirror, and a good chunk of their offseason happenings — both good and bad — are as well. Which means it’s time to shift our attention to the thing I’ve been trying to avoid giving attention to for the last ... uhh ... roughly year or so.
I can wait no more.
With MLB’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) set to expire, the league’s owners and players are locked in labor negotiations that will impact the 2022 season (assuming there is one) and many seasons to come.
Whether you’re the type of fan obsessed with CBA minutiae or the type of fan that prefers to just pay attention to what happens on the diamond, chances are you’ve heard the word “lockout” floating around in the last few weeks and months.
So here’s everything you need to know about the league’s labor negotiations and potential lockout as we prepare to flip to the final page in our 2021 calendar.
The CBA expires very, very soon
The current CBA expires this Wednesday (December 1) at 8:59 p.m. PT. That’s very soon!
It means that, barring a highly unlikely last minute labor agreement, the league will be without a CBA at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesday ... and without a CBA, the league cannot function.
That means ...
A lockout (not a strike) is imminent
Once the CBA expires (assuming a new one is not yet agreed to), the league will immediately enter a lockout.
The verbiage here is important. As people talk about the impending lockout, you might hear the term “strike” thrown around. But this is not a strike.
Just so you have the proper talking points for your holiday discussions with your confused relatives and thus can look smart: a strike is when the employees (in this case the players) refuse to show up to work during a dispute. A lockout is when the work stoppage is initiated by the employers (in this case the owners).
It might seem like MLB’s lockout is being initiated by the players, since the bulk of the talking points surround a desire for better pay. But as the CBA is something that needs to be agreed on by both sides, it technically falls on the owners when no agreement is in place, and they thus don’t have the workers necessary to go about business as usual.
Perhaps it’s overly semantic to focus on such details, and both sides are needed to reach a resolution, but there’s an important distinction between employees refusing to show up for work, and both employees and employers unable to find a common ground on which to establish a working relationship.
Which brings us to the important question ...
What happens during a lockout?
In the literal sense, the answer to this question is that the owners and the MLB Players Association sit down at the (probably virtual) bargaining table and try very hard to reach an agreement on a new CBA.
But let’s be honest: those back-and-forths won’t be visible, and won’t really impact any of us, until a resolution is reached. So let’s focus on the elements that do impact the fans.
A full shutdown of Major League transactions
Once a lockout begins, there will be a league-wide transaction freeze. Players can’t be signed or negotiated with. Players can’t be designated for assignment or traded. The 40-man roster will be frozen like Han Solo in carbonite, and will only unfreeze when a new CBA is agreed on by both sides.
It’s for that reason that you’re seeing such a flurry of moves over the last few days, and will likely see that continue right up until Wednesday’s deadline.
It’s worth noting that this only applies to Major League transactions. For better and for worse, the Minor Leagues continue to operate as normal even during a lockout. The Giants can still make their usual flurry of Minor League signings and trades, so we won’t be entirely devoid of Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris doing their thing.
And if the lockout extends into the season, there will still be Minor League games.
An almost full shutdown of team activities
Not only are Major League players stuck in contract limbo, but they’ll be unable to participate in team activities or use team facilities, either. That means that players can’t show up to Oracle Park or the facility in Scottsdale, and they can’t meet and work out with Giants coaches.
The one exception here is for injured players who are currently rehabbing, as they are allowed to continue working with their teams. However, it’s not entirely clear (and players have expressed confusion already) if this extends beyond strict medical treatment or not. So, for instance, it’s unknown what access a player like Tyler Beede can have — can he workout and pitch at the facilities since he’s rehabbing an injury? Or is his contact with the Giants limited to receiving medical treatment, and all baseballs and mitts must be left behind?
While players are not allowed to use the team facilities or coaching staff, they are permitted to seek baseball employment elsewhere. If they would like to play in independent or foreign leagues, they are free to do so.
Personally, I hope Brandon Belt joins an indy league and hits .700/.900/2.220.
Everything gets pushed back
All dates that impact the Major League season will be pushed back, and take place when the lockout is resolved. The Rule 5 Draft, which is scheduled for December 8, will be postponed (assuming the lockout is still going), and take place following a resolution (there will, however, still be the Minor League portion of the draft). Spring Training will be pushed back if necessary, and games will be postponed or cancelled if the lockout extends that far.
What do the labor negotiations center around?
As with most labor negotiations, MLB’s primarily involve money. Which is to say, the workers want to make more of it, and the employers want to give less of it, or at least no more than they’ve been giving.
The primary reason for the lockout is one that you can likely relate to if you’ve ever worked somewhere: salary growth and revenue growth are not growing at the same rate. As revenue grows a lot (and prepares to grow a lot more with incoming TV deals), player salaries are growing only a little.
How do they seek to address that?
You can’t exactly put, “hey teams, just pay us more” into a CBA, so the the Players Association has to find other ways to force the issue.
This will likely be addressed at the top (with the high-earning players), and at the bottom (with the lower-earning players).
At the top, the players will likely seek to have draft compensation removed from the Qualifying Offer (or just have the Qualifying Offer removed entirely), and also to reduce penalties for teams that carry large payrolls. Under the current setup, these penalties hinder what teams are willing to pay for top-end talent.
At the bottom, it seems likely that the Players Association will seek an increase in the size of minimum salaries, as well as a change to the arbitration system. As things currently stand, players are usually underpaid (often dramatically so) for the first six years of their Major League career, after being horrifically underpaid while in the Minors.
What rule changes might we see?
Potential rule changes have gotten the bulk of the attention with fans because they impact the game the most. In reality, they’re the least important part of the CBA negotiations, but they play an important role at the bargaining table.
Most notable is an expanded playoff system. Players have been mostly averse to expanding the postseason, but doing so would put a lot of extra money in the owner’s pockets. The Players Association can thus use expanded playoffs as a bargaining chip: we’ll give you this if give us something we want.
There’s also been a lot of talk about a universal designated hitter. It seems that this is one of the few things that both players and owners want, so you can expect to see that added for 2022. It brings me no joy to say this.
While those are the two big talking points with rules, other rules (such as the free runner in the tenth inning) could come or go based on who needs to cede some power in negotiations.
How long will a lockout last?
Your guess is as good as my guess is as good as that dude over there’s guess.
The good news is there are still about two and a half months until pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to Spring Training, so the two sides have plenty of time. It very well could be that a new CBA is agreed upon in a couple of days or weeks, and the lockout becomes just a tiny blip on an otherwise normal offseason.
It could be that it gets ugly and extends for many months. At that point it would start to cut into games, and we would likely end up with a truncated season. We’ve seen this happen with lockouts in recent years, both in MLB and in other major sports.
Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.