MLB lockout: New CBA still far away after first negotiation

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Major League Baseball made proposals Thursday to the Major League Baseball Players Association that addressed economic issues and a revised lottery draft, according to sources familiar with the talks.

The proposals represented the first substantive talks since MLB began the lockout on Dec. 2. However, it was not immediately known whether the proposals paved any way towards an agreement. So far, progress and common ground have been so scarce that the planned start of spring training could be in jeopardy. The first workouts for pitchers and catchers are on February 16th. The first games are scheduled for February 26th.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred

The gap between the two sides can be explained by the different scope of restructuring of the expired collective agreement. Players have asked for changes to three pillars of previous agreements: eligibility for free agency, eligibility for arbitration and sharing of revenue, ie the money sent from larger market clubs to smaller market clubs.

Owners have told players that changes to free agency eligibility, for example, are a non-starter — the equivalent of how players view a salary cap. Free agent eligibility has remained at six years of service since the late union boss Marvin Miller helped found it in 1976.

Players want younger players to gain greater earning power, which is why they have attempted to reduce eligibility for arbitration services. In response, owners on Thursday proposed a formula to bring more money to all two-plus-duty players, not just those who qualify as Super Two umpires.

In response to players’ concerns about service time manipulation, the owners proposed a system to encourage clubs to promote their best players.

The NBA-style owners’ draft lottery proposal was made to address union concerns about teams fielding partially uncompetitive teams in order to get higher draft picks. The latest proposal was in response to player feedback on their original proposal.

The owners previously made proposals to eliminate draft pick pay associated with qualifying free agency offers, add the designated hitter to the National League, raise the minimum salary by 23% to $700,000, and raise the threshold for the competition balance sheet tax by $4 million to $214 million. Players first suggested setting the threshold at $248 million and then countered at $245 million.

Mistrust and timing are important elements as negotiations have yet to gain momentum. Players are suspicious that owners have used the last two or three CBAs in conjunction with efficiency-focused analytics to reduce competition and player costs. They view “refueling,” or setting up uncompetitive teams to rebuild farm systems, as a key economic and philosophical problem.

The pressure to work towards a deal only increases when spring training and a full 162-game season are in jeopardy. For example, the last lockout in 1990 ended on March 18th. The players were at camp two days later. To salvage the entire season, the two sides agreed to rig the calendar. They held a condensed, three-week spring training session, rescheduled opening day a week later, and added three game days towards the back end of the schedule.

Opening day is scheduled for March 31 this year, two days earlier than 1990. With the extended playoffs, there is little to no scope to extend the regular season. For these reasons, the final date for an agreement that would save the entire season is about a week before March 9, before the 1990 date.

But agency has another major difference between 1990 and that lockout. The 1990 lockout only began on February 15, just as the camps were due to open. Most free-agent deals had been closed by then. When that lockout began on December 2, only 61 free agents had signed. In a typical year, about 120 free agents are signed in the major leagues, meaning about half of the free agent deal has yet to be resolved after a settlement is reached.

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