The Clock Is Ticking, but M.L.B. and its Players Remain Apart

Major League Baseball’s spring training is scheduled to start in a month and the 2022 regular season is supposed to kick off on March 31. Neither can happen until the owners of M.L.B.’s 30 teams and the players strike a new labor agreement, and with little progress so far, the clock is ticking on whether baseball can begin on time.

On Thursday, for the first time since team owners locked out the players on Dec. 2, officials from M.L.B. and the players’ union met about the major issues that have been sticking points for a new deal. During the virtual gathering, M.L.B. made its first economic proposal to the union since the lockout — baseball’s first work stoppage since 1994 — brought the sport to a standstill.

While M.L.B. officials believed they offered concessions and momentum toward a resolution, union officials and players were disappointed and had expected a more robust proposal given the time that had elapsed since the lockout began.

In the days leading up to the expiration of the collective bargaining agreement, M.L.B. and union officials held face to face negotiations at a hotel outside of Dallas. Each side questioned whether the other was stalling to enact pressure. That fear remains a month later.

Given the bitter disagreements in recent years, the mistrust between the sides and the negotiations so far, the result of Thursday’s meeting was not unexpected. It was unclear how, if and when the union would officially respond or counter M.L.B.’s latest bid. As of Thursday night, no further bargaining sessions had been scheduled between the sides.

M.L.B.’s proposal to the union centered around new tweaks that it believed would bring more money for younger players (offering to compensate a small group of players known as Super Twos based on a performance formula rather than the existing salary arbitration process, which is based on service time); help prevent teams from tanking (a club would be ineligible for three consecutive years for an amateur draft lottery for the first three picks); and help cut down on service time manipulation (awarding draft picks to teams whose top prospects win or finish near the top for awards like rookie of the year or most valuable player within their first three seasons).

The union, though, does not believe some of those offers would accomplish what M.L.B. claims. Players also felt that their other concerns remained unaddressed.

This expired five-year agreement has been viewed as having further tilted the balance in the owners’ favor. Top players have been awarded record contracts in recent years — and earlier this off-season — but the average major league salary has either plateaued (around $4 million) or dropped. Younger players, who are cheaper, have been relied upon more by teams. And the union has been bothered by clubs that manipulate players’ ability to accrue service time and clubs that receive tens of millions in revenue sharing from their counterparts yet purposefully don’t compete for playoff spots.

Players have sought a series of improvements: getting younger players compensated sooner, creating ways for players to reach salary arbitration and free agency sooner, raising luxury tax thresholds (from $210 million to $245 million), reducing revenue sharing by $100 million, curbing service time manipulation, and forcing teams to be more competitive through a handful of measures, including changes to the amateur draft (a draft lottery for the top eight picks).

Owners, though, feel baseball players have the best deal in professional sports — M.L.B. is the only one of the four major North American professional leagues without a salary cap. M.L.B. Commissioner Rob Manfred drew some of the league’s lines in the sand last month, saying there would be no changes to revenue sharing or the amount of time it takes for a player to reach free agency. He also characterized the union’s requests as “collectively the most extreme set of proposals in their history.”

Among M.L.B.’s past proposals, some of which have been rejected by the union: a club payroll floor ($100 million) along with a lower luxury tax threshold ($180 million) — or more modest luxury tax threshold increases (starting with $214 million) without a floor but with steeper penalties for going over; elimination of draft pick compensation, which penalizes teams for signing top free agent players; an overhaul of the salary arbitration system; smaller increases to league minimum salaries, and making free agency based on age (29.5) instead of service time (six years).

(There has been some common ground between the sides on matters like a universal designated hitter and expanded playoffs, although M.L.B. has proposed a 14-team format and the union has called for 12.)

Over the course of the lockout, the sides met twice before Thursday, but those meetings were to discuss matters not concerning the major economic obstacles. The C.B.A. is a large document that governs everything in the sport — from the length of the season to roster sizes to the domestic violence policy to the economic structure — so there is a lot to agree upon.

Deals often arise when deadlines are speeding closer. M.L.B. and the players already blew past the Dec. 1 expiration of the C.B.A. The next pressure point is mid-February, when pitchers and catchers are expected to report to camp in Arizona and Florida.

Players aren’t missing out on any paychecks in the off-season, nor would they in spring training, when they get allowances. Paychecks begin when the regular season does. During the lockout, there is supposed to be no contact between team officials and players, and players are not allowed at club facilities. Hundreds of free agent players remain unsigned, including stars like Freddie Freeman and Carlos Correa.

In three previous lockouts, the sides were able to come together and still have a full regular season. In 1990, a 32-day lockout eliminated most of spring training, but the league was able to put together a 162-game regular season that started a week later than usual. The last work stoppage to cost regular-season games (over 900 in all) was the 1994-95 players’ strike.

Given the current gulf between the sides, the heavy lifting needed to complete a labor agreement and the logistics of bringing together thousands of players and team employees from all over the world for spring training, time is critical. A faster pace to the negotiations may be necessary to avoid a delay to the baseball calendar.

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