On December 2, 2021, Robert Manfred and the MLB elected to lockout the players for the first time since 1990.
Both the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) and the MLB had hoped to avoid a lockout when the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) officially expired, but they could not agree to terms for a new CBA in time. As a result, baseball has been in a state of limbo.
With Spring Training just weeks away, it is unknown what impact the lockout will have on the 2022 season. However, it can be reasonably expected that with a new CBA coming, things will look a little different this year.
Free Agency Frenzy
Prior to the lockout, MLB teams committed over $1.7 billion dollars to free agents. For reference, the most money spent on free agents in a single offseason was prior to 2020. In that offseason, teams spent a collective $2.1 billion in free agency.
With names like Carlos Correa, Clayton Kershaw, Freddie Freeman and more still on the board, this is shaping up to be the most expensive offseason in MLB history.
MLB free agency is normally a somewhat slow process. However, it is likely teams felt pressured to sign their biggest targets prior to the expiration of the CBA. This led to highly competitive bidding wars between clubs.
The added pressure resulted in contracts like Corey Seager’s massive 10-year, $325 million deal with the Texas Rangers. The same can be said for Max Scherzer’s record-breaking three-year, $130 million deal. The deal is worth $43.3 million per year, the highest average annual value (AAV) of any contract in MLB history.
— ESPN (@espn) November 29, 2021
Because of the lockout, teams will have a limited amount of time to finalize their free agency decisions before it is time for players to report to spring training. As a result, when the lockout ends there will likely be another mass spending spree across the league.
In addition, the contracts we have already seen are likely to drive up the prices for the remaining stars on the board. This complicates matters for small-market teams looking to make a splash this offseason.
It is yet to be seen how the lockout will impact signings and team composition heading into the new season. However, it can be expected that several more bombshell contracts are signed before Opening Day to cap off this explosive offseason.
The New-Look MLB
With the new CBA is likely to come several rule changes awaited by fans and players alike.
Firstly, the MLB may implement the universal designated hitter. If this change does come to fruition, expect it to have a massive impact on National League free agency. This is because NL teams gain an extra spot in the batting order to work with, as well as added versatility to their roster.
The league is also expected to throw away the controversial extra-innings rule introduced prior to the shortened 2020 season. The rule placed a runner on second to start extra innings. CBA discussions have additionally included reverting the seven-inning doubleheaders back to their original nine innings.
One of the bigger changes to the league proposed by the MLB is the idea of an expanded playoff race. 14 teams would make the postseason with a three-game Wild Card round. The best record in both leagues would earn a bye from the Wild Card round.
Supporters of this proposition are adamant that this would create more opportunities for “dark horse” teams. For example, the 90-72 Seattle Mariners would have had their first postseason opportunity in 20 years.
However, critics hold concerns that this reduces the value of the playoffs overall. They argue that this would lower the floor for what constitutes playoff contention. For example, in 2021 the Philadelphia Phillies would have earned a Wild Card appearance with a record of 82-80.
Whether you agree or disagree with these changes, it is likely some or all of these changes will be implemented for the 2022 season with the introduction of the new CBA agreement.
Ballin’ on a Budget
Some of the biggest changes being proposed by the MLBPA for this new CBA agreement have to do with the core economics of the league.
For one, fans and players have been frustrated for decades at the idea of ‘tanking’. This is where clubs intentionally field non-competitive teams in order to rebuild until they hit a playoff contention window.
In order to combat this tactic, players have suggested a number of tweaks to the current system. One idea is to institute a salary floor to force teams to spend a minimum amount each season. Additionally, they could change the draft format to a reverse draft order where the best team that does not make the playoffs earns the number one pick in the draft.
This incentivizes teams eliminated from playoff contention to play competitively and not tear down the team at the deadline. Take the 2021 Chicago Cubs, for instance. While they gained assets in return, they dealt Javier Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, among others, at the deadline. These core players helped lead them to a World Series just five years prior.
The Service Time Problem
In addition, it is well known that clubs manipulate the service time of their young stars in the minors. This is done in order to delay their eventual free agency and keep them under team control.
The most notable example of this that comes to mind is that of Kris Bryant. The Cubs called Bryant up in 2015, but in a way so that at the end of the season, he was one day short of a full year of service time. This effectively lengthened his time under team control by a full year.
This practice has been used by teams throughout the league in an effort to retain their young stars until their teams are ready for playoff contention. Players and fans alike argue that this is an abusive practice that has extensive impacts on the trajectory of players’ careers. The MLBPA is pushing hard for changes to the system that help prevent this exploitation.
When It’s All Said and Done
At the end of the day, fans are still mostly in the dark surrounding the upcoming season. People can speculate as to what changes with the new season, but only time will tell.
Fans are understandably upset at the way this entire situation has unraveled. Ultimately they are the group most impacted by the lockout. Whether one believes the lockout was necessary or selfish, the fans are the ones left out to dry.
All that fans can hope for is that they can come to an agreement soon. This offseason is shaping up to be one of the most memorable in baseball’s storied history, and will make for a 2022 season to remember. For better, or for worse.
Featured Image Courtesy of Win McNamee / Getty Images
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