MLB impasse ends; new CBA agreement struck



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MLB lockout ends Image: MLB

In a startling turnabout after more than three months of largely stagnant negotiations, the Major League Baseball (MLB) (US) and the MLB Players’ Association (MLBPA) reached agreement on March 10th on a new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that will significantly impact the game, capping a five-day stretch of lengthy bartering that resulted in the chance to salvage a full, 162-game season.

The ‘USA Today’ stated that the proposed five-year agreement came 99 days after the MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred imposed a lockout following expiration of the last CBA, and one week after the clubs concluded eight days of bargaining in Florida (US) with no deal, prompting MLB to cancel one week of games.

And it came one day after Manfred announced that “another two series are being removed from the schedule”, pushing Opening Day from March 31st to April 14th, a potentially massive black eye for a sport that largely avoided labor fisticuffs since a strike and lockout canceled the 1994 World Series and the first 18 games of the 1995 season.

Instead, the delay will be one week: April 7th is expected to serve as most teams’ Opening Day, with the first week of games to be made up via doubleheaders throughout the course of the season and at season’s end.

The Major League Baseball (MLB) is a professional baseball organization and the oldest major professional sports league in the world. As of 2022, a total of 30 teams play in Major League Baseball – 15 teams in the National League and 15 in the American League – with 29 in the United States and 1 in Canada.

The Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) is the collective bargaining representative for all current Major League Baseball players. All players, managers, coaches, and athletic trainers who hold or have held a signed contract with a Major League club are eligible for membership in the Association.

A collective bargaining agreement (CBA) is a written legal contract between an employer and a union representing the employees. The CBA is the result of an extensive negotiation process between the parties regarding topics such as wages, hours and terms and conditions of employment.

The ‘USA Today’ further stated that the season will for the first time include a full-time designated hitter in the National League and conclude with expanded playoffs, with 12 teams – six in each league – making the field for the first time in a 162-game season. That’s a lot of baseball compressed from early April into November.

Such a bonanza looked grim after the MLB flexed its muscles with more cancellations on March 9th, wiping out four series for each team. Yet the sides continued dialog and by March 10th afternoon, players voted to accept the owners’ proposal ahead of a 3 ET deadline.

Later, the owners unanimously ratified the new CBA, ending a process that denied baseball 100 days of crucial off-season exposure, with the excitement of winter trades and free agent signings and the traditional sun-splashed build-up of Spring training tabled in place of grim bargaining.

Manfred stated on March 10th that his decision to lock the players out and the subsequent, stultifying negotiations were in part a function of collective bargaining.

Manfred said at a presser in MLB’s New York offices, “Collective bargaining is driven by two things – time and economic leverage. No agreement comes together until those two things play on in a way that you find common ground. I think we made an agreement when it was possible to make an agreement.”

That time accelerated quickly on the morning of March 10th when the sides agreed on the issue du jour that had waylaid progress: An international draft.

The sides struck a compromise that they’d continue studying whether to subject teenagers from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and other Latin American countries to a draft rather than free agency, an admittedly flawed process that needs greater oversight at least, if not a total overhaul. If by July 25th the union does not relent to an international draft by 2024, MLB will reattach draft-pick compensation and qualifying offers to free agents.

It’s an objectively odd exchange, one that potentially will not settle two vexing issues, but it kept the channels of communication open.

On the afternoon of March 10th, the MLB countered the union’s most recent offer after the sides significantly closed the gap in recent days on the most divisive issue – the luxury tax ceiling.

It offered a $230 million starting point, increasing to $244 million over the five years of the CBA, nearing the players’ neighborhood of $232 million and $250 million. MLB originally offered a $214 million opening-year tax.

As yet another MLB-created deadline of 3 ET loomed, the MLBPA’s eight-man executive council and its 30 player representatives voted to accept the proposal (by a 26-12 count), ending a lockout that threatened to wipe out the third-most games among all MLB work stoppages.

All the “deadlocks”, the posturing and the passive aggression eventually yielded a five-year pact that includes wrinkles such as a bonus pool for players with less than three years of service time and a draft lottery for the bottom six teams, but retains many of the salary-depressing mechanisms and competition disincentives that raised the ire of players to begin with.

And it will provide Manfred significant leeway to impose new rules with just 45 days notice, a wrinkle that in 2023 will likely result in significant alterations to gameplay, such as a pitch clock, larger bases and a possible banning of infield shifts.

Yet the MLBPA took incremental gains where it could find them, most notably a higher ceiling on the luxury (or “competitive balance”) tax, bumping the minimum salary to $700,000 (increasing to $780,000), a nice bump from the $570,500 mark in 2021. And the sides established a $50 million a pool for high-achieving young players not yet eligible for arbitration.

And fighting for those gains took these negotiations into March, wiping out the first month of Spring training, with an agreement struck just 21 days before the original Opening Day.

Yet just two days earlier, even that seemed a longshot, given MLB’s apparent unwillingness to budge on luxury tax thresholds.

The luxury-tax ceiling promised to be the sticking point in negotiations, and it did not disappoint. Players have gradually seen the luxury tax evolve into a de facto salary cap over the past two decades, and were determined to make up ground lost in previous CBAs. The luxury tax ceiling grew just 18 percent since 2011, from $178 million to $210 million in 2021, a period during which industry revenues grew 70 percent, from an estimated $6.29 billion to $10.7 billion in 2019, the last season untouched by pandemic.

Just a week ago, the two sides’ exchanges on the luxury tax left them a total of $204 million apart over the five-year term, and closing that gap proved one of the last dominoes to fall.

Yet MLB found the means on March 10th and March 11th to bump its luxury tax ceiling offer for 2022 to $230 million – a $20 million increase from 2021 and $16 million over its original $214 million offer. That closed the gap between the sides to a point realistic enough that a deal came into focus.

On March 10th, despite all the acrimony, the actual and fake deadlines and the impasses, it got done – just in time to avoid a stunted 2022 season.

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