June 30, 2020

Should Baseball Fans Brace for a 2021 Work Stoppage?

From the time spring training was suspended in March to when the MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred announced the start of the 2020 season in late June, baseball fans have endured a loooong wait without baseball.

Unfortunately, those fans might have to get used to waiting and learn to live in a world without the national pastime.

Through months of negotiating the return of baseball, the MLB and MLB Players’ Association relationship has grown more contentious. And after all the drama between the two sides, it was the commissioner who acted unilaterally to announce the start of a 60-game season in late July. 

That spells bad news for the future of baseball. In fact, it's so bad that the MLB is poised for a work stoppage that could put the 2021 season on hold much like the 2020 campaign. Here's why. 

Last Time was a Close Call

Most baseball fans probably forget that there was almost a work stoppage the last time the MLB's collective bargaining agreement was set to expire. The previous CBA was scheduled to end on December 1, 2016, with a new agreement being reached just hours before the deadline.

It would not have impacted the season if an agreement was made a few days after that deadline. However, the close call in 2016 doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence for the players and owners agreeing on a new CBA when the current one expires after the 2021 season. In fact, the two sides have drifted so far apart since that agreement in 2016 that one side may not even wait until after the 2021 season to sort out the issues. 

The recent disagreements over how to proceed for the 2020 season has only increased the rift between the players and owners. Neither side was willing to compromise much in order to reach an agreement, even as the nation grew desperate for live sports to return.

If not for the March agreement that allowed Manfred to decide the terms of the season, we could have easily gone without baseball in 2020 for financial reasons rather than public health concerns, which would have been an unmitigated disaster for the sport.

With that in mind, either the players or owners could force the other to the bargaining table next spring with either a lockout or a strike on the horizon in hopes of avoiding a showdown when the current CBA expires after the 2021 season.

Don't Forget the Pre-existing Conditions

The debate about playing conditions and money in the midst of a pandemic has only added to the long list of issues that the players and owners need to work out when they return to the bargaining table. Players have noticed the increasing reliance by teams on younger players who have cheap salaries, which in turn has hurt the value of veteran players on the free-agent market.

In fairness, that is partly due to performance-enhancing drugs being taken out of the game, making it more difficult for players to continue to produce at high levels as they move deeper into their 30s. Nevertheless, the players will surely be looking to increase the league’s minimum salary for young players while also pushing for players to reach both arbitration and free agency a year earlier than the current system allows.

The union has rightfully grown tired of teams manipulating service time with young, promising players in order to delay their free agency by a year. Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant has become the best example of this. However, Bryant lost the grievance he filed against the Cubs after an arbitrator ruled that the union was unconvincing in its argument that the Cubs manipulated his service time. That will undoubtedly force the union to bring up service time in the next CBA, potentially hurting their leverage in other areas of negotiations. 

The players would also like to fight the competitive balance tax. While officially it helps to balance the playing field between big-market and small-market teams by discouraging free-spending by clubs that generate more revenue, the tax also reduces player salaries. Moreover, the tax hasn’t grown at the same rate as the increase in revenue in recent years, which is understandably upsetting for the players. 

Even with the competitive balance tax, teams have not stopped the practice of massive rebuilds that some consider tanking. Teams that trade away their best players and rebuild from the bottom up tend to ignore the free-agent market, creating less competition for free agents and ultimately leading to lower salaries for veteran players. This is just one more thing that has irked the MLBPA, creating another major point of contention between the union and the owners. 

Get Comfy, There's a Long Offseason Ahead

In recent years, it’s no secret that top-tier free agents have had difficulty finding the kind of deals they expected. Two winters ago, both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado failed to sign new contracts until after spring training started. Meanwhile, pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Craig Kimbrel didn’t sign with a team until the middle of the season because draft-pick compensation limited their market. The MLBPA was understandably upset because premier players shouldn't struggle with a tepid free-agent market, which is why these players are ready for a change. 

In fairness, this past offseason was a little more lucrative for the top guys on the market. However, with revenues impacted significantly by the coronavirus pandemic and the 60-game season, the union fears a lack of free-agent spending by teams this winter. With players like Mookie Betts, George Springer, Marcell Ozuna, J.T. Realmuto, Marcus Stroman and Trevor Bauer available, there’s no reason for teams to be stingy with their money with so many impact free agents available. But if those players don’t receive significant interest from teams and sign big-money, long-term deals, the union will be further angered and could be ready to take drastic measures.

Granted, a slow free-agent market amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic isn’t a good reason for the players to strike. However, it could potentially be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Given the long list of issues the union believes must be addressed, a strike could be their best bargaining chip in creating wholesale changes.

If the top available players in this year’s free-agent class can’t find contracts that match their track records, the MLBPA could decide that enough is enough and strike in order to force a new CBA before the 2021 season rather than after it.

Are the Owners Looking to Make a Stand?

Of course, the players aren’t the only ones who are upset and might want to force the other side to the bargaining table early. MLB’s owners were upset throughout May and June that the union was unwilling to budge on the stance that players should receive their full pro-rated salary during the 2020 season. The agreement the two sides made in March gave the players a pro-rated salary based on the number of games played. However, the owners, at the time, believed that fans would be in the stands when play resumed, minimizing revenue losses. We now know that won’t be the case and owners grew angry at players for not recognizing that the financial situation for them had changed.

Throughout the heated and public negotiations for the 2020 season, multiple owners spoke out about how the more games that were played during the 2020 season without fans, the more money they would lose. St. Louis Cardinals owner Bill DeWitt Jr. went as far as to say that owning a major league team isn’t that profitable, which is ridiculous. Naturally, the complaints of billionaire owners drew little sympathy from either players or fans.

After failing to get the players to fold on receiving pro-rated salaries in 2020, owners could be looking to punish the MLBPA in the future. They surely know the best way to do that would be with a pre-emptive lockout ahead of the 2021 season.

MLB owners know that they are dealing with a powerful union and will look to take away some of its power by any means possible after feeling disrespected this spring. That is why the possibility of a lockout must be mentioned alongside the possibility of a strike.

What if it happens?

It’s worth mentioning that there is no reason to believe that a strike our lockout prior to the 2021 MLB season is imminent. Both sides are capable of understanding that the world has changed during the ongoing pandemic and that it will take some time to adjust. Both sides may also feel it’s best to wait until after the 2021 campaign to return to the bargaining table with the hope that the pandemic will be largely behind us and a new normal will be more clearly defined by then.

That being said, both sides are undoubtedly angry at the other. Heated negotiations over starting the 2020 season that played out in the public eye only deepened the divide and increased the animosity between the players and the owners. Things have all but reached a boiling point, which is why we can’t rule out the possibility of a preemptive strike or lockout ahead of the 2021 season. 

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