Still Hope for ‘Miraculous Deal’ to Save On-Time Spring Training Start

Major League Baseball fired a torpedo at its own ship long ago and the vessel has been slowly sinking since it was struck broadside by a lockout on December 2. But scuttling a ship on purpose means the crew has already prepared lifeboats, something I’ve written about previously without the seafaring analogies. Let’s dispense with the more abstract stuff, then, and get down to plain discussion.

Even from the time before the long-expected lockout became official, league sources believed the labor freeze would stretch until mid-February. That would seem to indicate the owners were intent to wait negotiations out until the 11th hour in an attempt to either break the union outright or at least get players to acquiesce to a new CBA that yet again favors the league. Why else would it have taken six weeks just to have the second meeting between the two sides?

While there seems to be little progress in terms of agreement on the core economic principles of a new pact, talks have at least picked up in terms of frequency. And with the players changing tack on topics like age-based free agency and new guidelines for revenue-sharing, there seem to be fewer hot-button issues at this point.

Ah, but the remaining issues and the disparity between what the union and league are willing to accept are cause for concern. Take the bonus pool for pre-arbitration players, for instance. The union decreased its ask from $105 million to an even $100 million, but the owners have remained stuck at $10 million. Never mind that you’re talking about an average of only $333,000 per team at that level, it’s 1,000% lower than what the union wants.

There are similar gulfs in other aspects of the CBA, one of which I’ll address in a note at the end of the post, leading many to believe there’s no way a deal gets done soon. Jeff Passan went so far as to tweet that the “on-time opening of spring training at this point is in grave danger and, frankly, would take a miraculous deal coming together to rescue.” That could well be the case, though I don’t think a miracle is out of the question.

In support of those earlier reports of people in MLB targeting mid-February for a resolution, a source with knowledge of the situation relayed to Cubs Insider that something could be done by February 10. That’s awfully specific, but it’s five days before pitchers and catchers are set to report for most teams and would provide enough runway for equipment trucks to load up and travel plans to be finalized.

Jesse Rogers set the “when to worry” date two days earlier, though I think that line of demarcation may have been laid down in pencil. There are certainly some logistical issues with players who live abroad and free agents who’ve yet to sign, but those first few days aren’t necessarily integral to the overall preparedness of athletes who’ve long been engaged in their own offseason programs. After all, we’re not talking about guys who have to used spring training as a time to dry out and drop 15 pounds from the offseason.

The really scary dates come later in the month, with the first spring games scheduled for February 26. I know I just said players don’t need as much — or any — time to get themselves in shape physically, but even the most seasoned veterans can’t just jump onto the field and start playing games with no ramp-up time. Rogers puts that at a week, which makes sense, though losing a few games in the spring isn’t a big deal.

Where things really start to get worrisome is if the lockout is still in place once the calendar flips to March. By then you’re looking at not only missing a week of the exhibition slate, but at providing too little time for players to be ready for the regular season. Opening Day is slated for March 31 and you’d think everyone would like at least a full month to build up to it, so regular season games are in jeopardy if February comes and goes with no agreement.

As dire as that sounds, it’s also cause for hope in a way. I mean, inasmuch as you can look at the situation and understand that negotiations could still drag on for nearly four more weeks with only nominal impact to the game. Or perhaps I should say to the game’s structure, since losing spring training contests would result in a big PR hit for a league that can ill afford to lose ground when it comes to public perception.

It feels like this is all about owners’ egos at this point, which I suppose goes without saying. Unless, of course, you prefer to view this as the players’ fault, which would have me asking you whether you also believe they locked themselves out. Anywho, the league has gained an advantage in each of the last two CBA negotiations and could easily stand to give up a little this time around. I’d go so far as to say the overall health of the sport would actually be better if owners surrendered a little ground.

Perhaps their hubris could actually work in their favor if they are indeed targeting a date that will allow them to make a more amenable proposal that gets baseball going again and makes the league look like saviors to an extent. Money is at the root of this whole thing, but going from fetid to feted is surely an attractive proposition for a collection of megalomaniacal billionaires.

I guess we’ll find out soon enough whether there was a plan all along.

Ed. note: One of the union’s proposals aimed at curbing service time manipulation is for players to be able to earn a full year of service by winning awards or placing high enough on positional WAR leaderboards. That latter concept seems really silly to me and I don’t think it’s smart on the players’ part.

Another option, and one the union may be amenable to, is for teams to receive extra draft picks if top prospects are up with the team from the start of the season and stay there all year or meet certain awards-voting thresholds. That was actually a league proposal and it sure sounds like something that would have teams trying to get the most out of their young players early. 

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