CHICAGO — While insisting Major League Baseball is focused on reaching a labor deal, Commissioner Rob Manfred signaled Thursday that owners likely will lock out players if the current contract expires Dec. 1 without a new agreement.
Baseball had eight work stoppages from 1972-95, but there has been labor peace since a 7 1/2-month strike began in August 1994 and forced the cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years.
“We’ve been down this path. We locked out in ’89-’90,” Manfred said. “I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody. 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.”
Talks have been going on since spring but have lacked the momentum toward an agreement that characterized negotiations that led to deals in 2006, ‘’11 and ’16.
Baseball had a 32-day spring training lockout in 1990 and while opening day was delayed a week, each team was scheduled for a full 162 games.
“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 is different than a labor dispute that costs games,” Manfred said.
While the luxury tax threshold was $210 million this year with a 20% rate for first-time offenders, management has proposed having a $180 million threshold with a 25% rate.
Teams also have proposed a $100 million payroll floor, which the union opposes because it is tied to tax penalties at the higher end.
Owners also have proposed replacing salary arbitration — for players with three years but less than six of major league service plus the top 17% by service time between two years and three — with pay determined by FanGraphs WAR The union considers that the type of salary scale it has rejected since 1989.
Players currently eligible for arbitration would have the option of being grandfathered under the existing arbitration system.
Players, concerned with service-time manipulation, have proposed dropping free agency eligibility from six seasons of service to five and arbitration eligibility to two seasons, where it stood before the 1985 strike settlement.
Owners instead proposed free-agent eligibility be changed to the age of 29.5 years.
Teams have rejected the union’s proposal for revenue-sharing changes, designed to benefit smaller markets and to incentive positive performance. The clubs have proposed a restriction that a team could not pick among the first five in the amateur draft in three consecutive years.
“We remain committed, No. 1 priority, to make an agreement prior to December 1,” said Manfred, who was the league’s chief negotiator before becoming commissioner in 2015. “We understand, I understand that time is becoming an issue. That’s a challenge. We’ve had challenges with respect to making labor agreements before, and we’ve got a pretty good track record of overcoming those challenges.”
Manfred was not surprised that several free agents have reached agreements since the World Series, even though CBA rules for next season are uncertain.
“We’re pretty good about following the law,” he said. “The law is you should continue to operate as normal even during the negotiating period in free agency. And that means clubs making individual decisions as to what’s best for them. So that’s what they’re doing.”
On other topics:
The Rays were given permission in June 2019 to explore splitting their home games between Tampa Bay and Montreal after the expiration of their lease at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, which runs through the 2027 season. The Rays made a presentation this week to the executive council.
“The council didn’t come to a conclusion on that, but really almost exclusively because of the press of other business,” Manfred said. “It’s a complicated topic.”
MLB gave the Athletics permission in May to explore relocation options if they are unable to secure a new waterfront ballpark in Oakland.
“They’ve continued to try to find a solution in Oakland. At the same time, they’re exploring Los Vegas as an alternative,” Manfred said. “They’ve worked really hard on both paths.”
Seattle chairman John Stanton, consultant Theo Epstein and MLB executive vice president Morgan Sword reported on the competition committee experiments.
“The pitch timer experiment in the Cal League was one that the owners remain very interested in because of the success,” Manfred said. “And frankly, we’ve seen some of the same outcomes in the Arizona Fall League.”
MLB is moving toward a new rub for baseballs that will lead to tackier surfaces, which many pitchers have sought, especially the crackdown on unauthorized substances began June 21.
“We actually have a couple of options in terms of tackier balls,” Manfred said. “There’s going to be some testing done over the winter. I think there will be — we will be far enough along that there will actually be kind of live game, I’m hoping, testing in spring training and we could just be using a new ball next year. Maybe it’s going to be 2023 instead, but we’re continuing to work on that project and have made real progress. The trick is tackier, but not so tacky that it’s Spider Tack, right?”
Diamond Sports Group, a subsidiary of Sinclair Broadcast Group that acquired Fox’s regional sports network, hopes to start a streaming RSN service and has asked permission from MLB.
“We see what’s going on with respect to the RSNs as a problem that needs to be solved, but an opportunity that needs to be seized, as well,” Manfred said. “Clubs really supportive of aggressive action to make sure that we are reaching our fans in the most effective way possible.”
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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