What would a lockout mean for MLB? Here's what happens next if baseball enters a work stoppage

·14-min read

So it looks like we’re headed for a work stoppage. Baseball’s current collective bargaining agreement expires on Wednesday at 11:59 p.m. ET, and after months of largely slow-moving negotiations, the sides suspended talks without a deal. The team owners are almost certainly going to lock out the players on Thursday.

If you’ve been following along since the 2021 season ended, you’ve probably heard all of that before. But on the eve of MLB’s first work stoppage in 26 years, let’s take a look at what those assumptions mean in context and in practice.

Some of the ensuing uncertainties will remain such for now, but we’ll update this story as we learn more.

What is a lockout?

A lockout is when management essentially closes up shop, suspending operations and preventing employees from continuing to work. It’s an escalated negotiation tactic used to put pressure on the workers in an effort to force them to make concessions. You generally cannot lock out labor — and labor cannot go on strike — during the course of a contract. But if a collective bargaining agreement expires without the two parties reaching a new deal, either side can initiate a work stoppage.

As it pertains to baseball, a lockout would mean anything involving members of the MLB Players Association — so, 40-man roster members — would freeze. If the lockout stretched on long enough without resolution, players would not be able to report to spring training and the start of the season could be in jeopardy.

Why is it a lockout and not a strike?

A lockout is essentially a strike started by the team owners, not the players. The distinction is which party determines the timing of the work stoppage in support of their bargaining proposals and to give themselves the greater leverage. (There are other, very technical, distinctions that likely won’t apply to baseball.)

The reason we can expect a lockout and not a strike this time around is because of the 1994 strike that took down over 900 games, including the postseason and the World Series. That was the players exercising their leverage at a time when it hurt the team owners the most. In the perpetual wake of that, the team owners will likely resort to a lockout preemptively, freezing offseason transactions, in an effort to force a consensus before games are at risk.

Commissioner Rob Manfred basically said as much at the owners meetings a few weeks ago.

“I don’t think ’94 worked out too great for anybody,” he said, referencing the strike that the players initiated when the season started without a CBA in place. “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.”

How did we get here?

Well, in 1966 the MLB Players Association elected Marvin Miller to lead the union.

OK we don’t have to go through every clash and compromise in baseball’s labor history, but in the broadest strokes: Miller organized players who had been at the mercy of team ownership’s benevolence since the inception of the sport and led them through several decades of tremendous gain. That meant establishing arbitration, securing steadily increased minimums and implementing an impartial grievance system they used to challenge the reserve clause and win free agency.

In the early 1980s, team owners attempted to push back on these gains through several years of concerted collusion against free agents, which resulted in several lost grievances and a forced payout to the players of $280 million. Tensions remained high, with a lockout in 1990, and peaked in 1994. Midsummer, team owners proposed a salary cap and in response, the players went on strike, ending the season in August. For the first time in 90 years, there was no World Series.

When play resumed for a shortened 1995 season, it ushered in the oft-cited quarter-century of labor peace. During this time, the game shifted dramatically to favor cunning — perhaps to the point of craven — team exploitations of every nook and cranny in the CBA to cut costs under the guise of financial flexibility. Profits have become increasingly divorced from winning, which has become increasingly linked to strategic losing. In a marketplace flooded with Moneyball mentalities and McKinsey types, team owners didn’t need to actively collude to fall in lockstep with one another and suppress salaries.

Free agency slowed, veterans and baseball’s middle class were squeezed out, tanking became accepted and then admired and then mimicked. Top prospects saw their service time manipulated and their best years played at a deep discount. The competitive balance tax threshold could be regarded as a soft salary cap.

Who is unhappy about the way the expiring CBA went and why?

Whether as a result of short-sightedness or complacency or lack of leverage, the union failed to mount a substantial fight against these trends in negotiations for either the 2012 or 2016 CBAs. Almost immediately, the latter was regarded as a loss for the players. Average salaries peaked the next year in 2017, but have fallen since. At the start of the 2021 season, they were down 6.4% from that high, despite records being set at the top end. Median salaries — reflecting the sport’s disappearing middle class — have fallen off even more dramatically, down 30% from their high in 2015.

(Obviously, the pandemic-shortened and fanless 2020 season was an economic aberration, but as of 2019, MLB was raking in record revenues.)

By 2019 — two years before the CBA was set to expire — the players’ frustration, and a calcifying series of specific complaints, was front of mind at the All-Star Game.

“We're very concerned. It’s been a little lopsided the last couple of years," Boston Red Sox DH J.D. Martinez told USA Today, “and I know the association definitely wants to do something about it."

“So when push comes to shove, I think we’ll be prepared to do whatever we need to do,” then-Houston Astros ace Gerrit Cole said.

How did the 2020 COVID negotiations play into this?

The growing dissatisfaction and simmering mistrust seemed to signal a looming showdown even before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered most of sports, straining economic realities and labor relations.

Under extreme and unparalleled circumstances, the bitter (and often public) fighting between the two sides served to underscore and intensify the acrimony. Still, the MLBPA demonstrated its willingness and preparedness to remain stalwart and unified in opposition to taking anything less than what the players believed to be their fair financial due — a day’s pay for a day’s work.

As a result, neither the 2020 nor 2021 seasons were launched as the result of compromise. Rather, both were implemented on the basis of essentially legalese — 2020 by Manfred unilaterally citing the power vested in him by the March Agreement drawn up at the outset of the pandemic (and over which the union filed a still-pending grievance); and 2021 by default, when team owners wanted to postpone opening day, but the players refused to compromise on the season structure laid out in the CBA.

The battlegrounds of the past two offseasons might not prove meaningful to the substance of the current negotiations, but they provided a crash course in labor relations and even a dry run at de facto work stoppage for the players.

What are they fighting over?

In a word, money. Last week, we explored some of the biggest issues on the table in these negotiations. The upshot: Players believe the current economic climate combined with broader trends in the game are resulting in young players getting dramatically underpaid during their most productive years and a disappearing middle class of free agents. The other primary concern is incentivizing competition.

It’s not just the union that arrives at these negotiations with a wish list. The league has proposed an expanded postseason structure, an international draft, a salary floor to pair with a stiffening of the soft cap that is the CBT, and a complete overhaul of pre-free agency years that would replace arbitration with an algorithm based on WAR.

Commissioner Rob Manfred — seen here at the World Series in Houston — is leading his second collective bargaining agreement negotiation. This one will likely result in a work stoppage. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Commissioner Rob Manfred is leading his second collective bargaining agreement negotiation. This one will likely result in a work stoppage. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Who are the key players?

Rob Manfred became MLB’s 10th commissioner in 2015. A 1980 graduate of Cornell and a 1983 graduate of Harvard Law School, he worked his way up through baseball on the labor side, starting as outside counsel in the 1994 negotiations. He led the CBA negotiations in 2002, 2006 and 2011, then oversaw the 2016 negotiations.

Tony Clark is the fifth executive director of the MLBPA, and the first former player to serve in that capacity. The 6-foot-8 first baseman played from 1995 to 2009 and joined the union as director of player relations the following year. He was elected executive director in 2013, following the death of the previous director Michael Weiner. He led the union for the 2016 CBA negotiations.

Although Manfred and Clark are the strategic heads and visible leaders of their respective parties, the nitty-gritty negotiations are largely handled by their deputies: MLB’s chief operating officer Dan Halem and MLBPA senior director of collective bargaining and legal Bruce Meyer.

The stakeholders are, of course, all the team owners and all the 40-man roster players themselves.

For the team owners, Colorado Rockies CEO Dick Monfort is chairman of the labor policy committee, joined by Mark Attanasio (Milwaukee Brewers), Ray Davis (Texas Rangers), Ron Fowler (San Diego Padres), John Henry (Boston Red Sox), Jim Pohlad (Minnesota Twins), and Hal Steinbrenner (New York Yankees).

The executive subcommittee of the MLBPA is comprised of eight players: Yankees pitchers Zack Britton and Gerrit Cole, Houston Astros catcher Jason Castro, New York Mets shortstop Francisco Lindor, free agent pitchers Andrew Miller, James Paxton and Max Scherzer, and free agent shortstop Marcus Semien. (Scherzer and Semien have reportedly agreed to nine-figure deals this week with the New York Mets and Texas Rangers, respectively.)

Five of the eight members — Britton, Cole, Lindor, Paxton and Scherzer — are represented by the game’s most powerful agent, Scott Boras.

Are the minor-league conditions part of this fight?

They are not.

Minor-league players are not part of the MLBPA bargaining unit. This is why working conditions and financial compensation are so drastically different (read: worse) in the minors. Without a union to advocate for their interests in a legal setting and with an artificially closed market (they can’t simply shop their services around to different franchises), minor leaguers are at the mercy of the team owners’ limited generosity. But this is also why minor-league transactions can continue in the event of a lockout.

What happens after Dec. 2?

When the CBA expires Wednesday night, technically nothing changes — at least not automatically. If the team owners choose not to lock out the players — and the players don’t go on strike — the offseason would proceed under the conditions of the outgoing CBA (with a few exceptions) and the two sides could continue to negotiate unless and until the parties reached agreement on a new contract, or an “impasse” was reached in the negotiations and the team owners chose at that point to implement their last best-and-final offer.

Perhaps if they can make enough progress on Wednesday that the end is in sight, the team owners could put off moving for a lockout and instead continue bargaining. But that’s not likely to happen.

As we discussed above, and as Manfred laid out in his owners meetings comments, the team owners will look to control the timing of an increasingly inevitable work stoppage and try to expedite the negotiations by putting immediate pressure on the players in the form of a lockout. And as the deadline approaches, that is the overwhelming expectation around baseball: A lockout, and the transaction freeze that accompanies it.

What is a transaction freeze?

In the event of a lockout, all offseason movement involving union members would cease. No free agent signings, no trades of major-league players, no major-league portion of the Rule 5 draft.

In fact, all interactions between the league/teams and the players would have to cease. That means physicals for newly signed players need to be completed beforehand and team channels — social and MLB Network — can’t show 40-man roster members. Drug testing would likely be suspended and international players could face visa difficulty if they’re outside the U.S. when a lockout starts.

What about international players?

Professional international free agents — that means guys like Seiya Suzuki of the NPB, who are already playing in MLB-recognized leagues — will have their 30-day posting windows frozen and restarted on the other side of the lockout. For Suzuki, who was posted on Nov. 22, 10 days before the CBA expiration, that would give him another 20 days to negotiate once a new CBA is in place.

For amateur international players, a new signing period will still start on Jan. 15, 2022 (that annual July 2 date was moved because of COVID).

What happens with rehabbing players?

A lockout should mean that union members cannot have access to team facilities or staff. Which means rehabbing players would not be allowed to communicate with team trainers or work out at the ballpark.

However, in 2012, when the NHL locked out its union, players working their way back from injuries were allowed to continue their rehabs as normal. For now, it’s among the uncertainties that await the actual implementation of a lockout.

Can teams hire coaches/managers/etc.?

Yes. The freeze is only between the teams and the members of the union — which does not include coaches or other team personnel. Managers can be hired (ahem, Mets), and front office roles filled.

Front offices are operating under the almost certainly accurate assumption that a 2022 season will start, if not on time, then eventually, and continuing to prepare for it — with the wrinkle of not being allowed to communicate with their players.

What happens with player pay?

Players are only paid during the regular season. (They get per diem in spring training and receive postseason shares based on gate receipts.) For now, a lockout does not affect their compensation at all. That is, if you don’t take into account how a shortened free agency period on the other side of a lockout could hamper the earning potential of anyone left standing without a team when the clock strikes midnight.

Paychecks become imperiled once the season itself is on the line. Of course, that’s also when ticket sales and TV broadcasts become possible. In short, both sides need regular season baseball games to make money — and the awareness of that will create a more powerful potential deadline than Dec. 2 will likely prove to be.

Will we miss games?

Right now, no one knows for sure. This will be the fourth time in MLB’s history that the team owners have locked out the players — 1973, 1976, and 1990. The 1990 lockout, during spring training, forced the start of the season back a week, but no regular season games have been canceled over previous MLB lockouts. The same cannot be said for basketball or hockey, however, which have both missed games due to lockouts over the past couple decades.

When does a deal need to be reached for the season to start on time?

Opening day 2022 is scheduled to be March 31. Right now, pitchers and catchers are supposed to report to spring training in mid-February. If everything is going to run on time, a deal would need to be done a few days (at least) in advance of that. Look for progress in or before early February if this is all going to be settled smoothly.

There is some thought, though, that spring training doesn’t need to be a full six weeks and that the roughly three-week “summer camp” ahead of the COVID-shortened 2020 season shows how a condensed schedule could work if necessary. That probably puts the absolute deadline closer to March 1, 2022.

That’s three months from now. Three months to hammer out a constructive, productive, mutually beneficial but essentially fairer collective bargaining agreement. There’s an opportunity to forge a future of the sport that’s better than the recent past, or to remain deadlocked until fans are left to suffer.