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Opinion: MLB teams spending millions on free agents, but also preparing for lockout

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 11/29/2021 Bob Nightengale, USA TODAY

IRVING, Texas — If Wednesday evening’s collective bargaining agreement deadline spurred the same frantic behavior clubs and free agents have exhibited the past couple of days, Major League Baseball and the players union would have reached an agreement months ago.

Instead, while there have been more than $1.6 billion in guaranteed contracts handed out in the past month, including nearly $1 billion in the past 24 hours, the clock is ticking towards an industry shutdown at 11:59 p.m. ET Wednesday.

While negotiations have moved painfully slow the past few months, with each side accusing the other of dragging its feet, five MLB executives arrived in the Dallas area on Sunday to resume negotiations with the Major League Baseball Players Association  during their annual executive board meetings, which includes 30 player representatives and eight executive committee members.

Commissioner Rob Manfred, left, and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark are the key figures in labor talks. © Ron Blum, AP Commissioner Rob Manfred, left, and Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Tony Clark are the key figures in labor talks.

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If there wasn’t at least a sliver of optimism that a deal could be struck, MLB officials, led by deputy commissioner Dan Halem, wouldn’t have flown to Dallas.

The union will tell you a lockout would be counter-productive, and agitate the players. But it would rather take time to reach a deal than rush into one by Wednesday evening.

But MLB believes that if an agreement is not reached, or at least close by the deadline, a freeze on all free-agent signings and trades, as well as cancelling the major-league portion of the winter meetings, would help push towards a resolution.

“Honestly, I can’t believe there’s a single fan in the world who doesn’t understand that an offseason lockout that moves the process forward," Commissioner Rob Manfred said last week, “is different than a labor dispute that costs games."

If Manfred issues a lockout, the two sides are expected to retreat, reassess and get back to negotiations within 10 days to two weeks.

The next artificial deadline likely would be Feb. 1, two weeks before pitchers and catchers are scheduled to report to spring training.

“You have these deadlines that aren’t necessarily hard deadlines,’’ Atlanta starter Charlie Morton said last week. “They’re there just to kind of give both sides a little sense of urgency.

“This (Dec. 1) deadline is for the lockout, but obviously you hope you have something done Jan. 1. If not, then you hope you have something done certainly by the time pitchers and catchers are supposed to report because then that’s going to start to affect things to a severe degree."

Even cancelling spring training games could be devastating to both sides. As it is, MLB says teams lost about $2.4 billion in 2020 because of the pandemic, while players lost two-thirds of their salary.

In addition, clubs need to sell season tickets for the 2022 season, with 28 of the 30 teams suffering a loss in attendance last year from 2019.

The frantic rush of deals in recent days and weeks is largely driven by agents and players concerned that owners may not be inclined to spend as much if season ticket sales are down. On the flip side, teams want to show they’re committed to winning to spur ticket sales even if there’s a work stoppage.

Now, it’s a matter of seeing whether MLB and the union can find common ground.

The union insists the CBA needs an overhaul, with perhaps as many as 13 teams not trying to win, younger players not being fairly compensated, teams manipulating the service time to delay free agency and the luxury tax and draft compensation being a deterrent to signing free agents.

MLB says there certainly can be improvements to the CBA, but contends players are doing just fine as evidenced by the millions already spent this winter. The older players still are faring well in free agency, the league points out, with 31-year-old Marcus Semien getting a $175 million deal, 30-year-old Kevin Gausman receiving $110 million and 37-year-old Max Scherzer becoming the first player to average more than $40 million a season. It is the only sport with seven players guaranteed at least $300 million, with seven of the eight biggest contracts in history signed under the current CBA.

The union will tell you it’s not about the game’s biggest stars being handsomely paid. The union wants assurances that all 30 teams are trying to win, acting more like the Los Angeles Dodgers and New York Mets instead of the Baltimore Orioles and Pittsburgh Pirates.

The union calls it competitive integrity. MLB calls it competitive balance.

The Kansas City Royals are the lone small-market team to win a World Series since 2003, while the top six teams in payroll average 90 victories and the lowest five teams average 75 victories.

In the past season, the Dodgers had a major-league leading $282.7 million payroll compared to Cleveland at $60.2 million.

The union and MLB say they share the same concern about sharing the wealth among the middle class, with 52% of the $2.7 billion spent last winter going to just seven players, and 158 players being paid the remaining 48%. The average salary for the 30 highest-paid players is $28.5 million compared to $3.9 million for everyone else.

The union proposes that to alleviate the gap the minimum salary of $570,500 must be significantly raised, the luxury tax increased from $210 million, players become eligible for salary arbitration before three years of service, and free agency lowered from six years of service for the first time since 1976.

MLB is willing to increase the minimum salary, but wants to abolish the current salary arbitration system that has created tension and animosity. The union has shown no inclination to abandon the process that has resulted in massive salary spikes.

MLB has no intention of lowering the six years of service time required for free agency, but it offered to make all players free agents at the age of 29½, saying it would enable 70% of players to reach free agency quicker or at the same time. The current average age of free agents is 31. The union insists the proposal would be worse for free agents, citing the likes of Vladimir Guerrero, 22, who would have to wait seven more years.

MLB is seeking an expanded playoff system from 10 teams to 14 teams, with the team having the best record getting a first-round bye while the others play a best-of-three opening series at the site of the team with the best record. The union has balked fearing that if teams believe they can reach the postseason with fewer victories, they’ll spend less money.

In the meantime, the Rangers, the local team here, are coming off a one-day, $561.2 million spending spree. Semien and Scherzer, who are on the eight-member executive subcommittee, are expected to have new lucrative contracts finalized before the Dec. 1 CBA deadline. And Clark and Meyer were scheduled to resume negotiations Monday with Halem and his staff to determine the future of the game.

Stay tuned as the signing frenzy continues, the drama in the negotiating room builds, and the clock keeps ticking.

Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Opinion: MLB teams spending millions on free agents, but also preparing for lockout

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