The 2016-21 collective bargaining agreement between MLB owners and the players’ union expired at midnight Eastern Time. It has long been clear that Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association would not have a new deal signed before the current contract ran its course. With no agreement reached, the league’s owners have unanimously voted to institute a lockout, reports Jon Heyman of the MLB Network. According to Bob Nightengale of USA Today, MLB will explain the decision in a press conference on Thursday. The league has not yet made any formal announcement.
The league was not under a mandate to lock the players out. Even in the absence of a CBA, the offseason could have proceeded. As MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes explored a few months ago, the sides continued to conduct offseason business during the last winters (1993-94 and 94-95) that proceeded without a CBA in place.
There’s been little expectation MLB wouldn’t institute a lockout once this CBA expired, however. Locking out in the absence of an agreement has become the typical practice in other professional sports leagues, as management hasn’t wanted to afford players the choice whether to go on strike at a later date. The players eventually went on strike during the 1994 season, for example, spurred on by ownership’s imposition of a salary cap. The sides didn’t reach a new agreement that year, and that season’s World Series was ultimately cancelled.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred implied the league would take this course of action a few weeks ago. Pointing to the ’94 strike and other sports leagues as justification, Manfred indicated a lockout would be on the table if no agreement were hammered out by December 1. “I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody,” the commissioner told reporters earlier this month. “I think when you look at other sports, the pattern has become to control the timing of the labor dispute and try to minimize the prospect of actual disruption of the season. That’s what it’s about: It’s avoiding doing damage to the season.”
With the lockout in place, teams will be prohibited from making any major league transactions until a new CBA is agreed upon. We’ve seen a flurry of activity — particularly via free agency — in the days leading up to the CBA expiration in response, as many clubs and players have wanted to pin down some certainty before a potential work stoppage.
A transactions freeze will be the most visible semblance of the lockout for fans, at least until the potential for game cancellations if no deal is agreed upon within a couple of months. A ban on transactions is certainly not the only effect, however. Jeff Passan of ESPN explored some intricacies of the situation earlier this week in a piece that’s well worth a full read. A few of the less visible effects: Injured players will not be allowed to communicate with team training staffs, players are no longer allowed to use team-run mental health services and some foreign-born players may run into visa issues. Don’t expect press conferences for newly signed players or interviews with GMs, either.
The lockout is unfamiliar territory for a generation of baseball fans; this is the first work stoppage in this website’s 16-year history. It’ll mark the first official work stoppage since 1994, snapping a run of nearly three decades of labor peace. The parties had discussions each day this week, but it doesn’t seem they made much progress. Evan Drellich of The Athletic reported earlier in the day that the league refused to make a counter-offer on the service-time structure and luxury-tax thresholds unless the MLBPA dropped its efforts to push earlier free-agency eligibility for players, a demand the union reportedly refused.
The league did give some ground on the competitive-balance tax, with Drellich reporting MLB proposed a gradual increase of the lowest tax threshold to an endpoint of $220M. However, that remains a fair bit shy of the MLBPA’s $240M goal, and it’s not clear if the league’s proposed increase also involved a corresponding uptick in penalties paid for exceeding those markers.
There’s certainly plenty to be hammered out beyond the luxury tax. The service-time system, arbitration and fundamental competitive structure of the league (including the number of playoff teams) will all at least be discussed over the coming weeks. That’s saying nothing of potential on-field rules changes like the extra-inning runner and the universal designated hitter. With so much yet to be determined, it’s generally not expected an agreement will be reached in short order. The 2022 spring training schedule could potentially dictate when the lockout ends, with owners likely reluctant to forgo exhibition game revenue.